When spring training started, El’Hajj Muhammad dashed around on the field like a Little Leaguer. Back with a Cincinnati minor league affiliate after a year spent rehabbing alone after knee surgery, Muhammad couldn’t wait “to run around, smell the fresh grass, play with guys I missed out on last year.”
The future looked bright right away. Muhammad got into a big-league spring training game against San Francisco. Casey McGehee — now a third baseman for Miami — hit a ball up the middle off Muhammad’s foot, and he also faced Giants left fielder Nori Aoki.
“It was a dream come true,” said Muhammad, a County College of Morris graduate from Somerset.
“It was one of the best feelings I’ll ever have. It was remarkable. I faced two batters, one hit and one out. It was a blessing for me, to be where I was last year, work all the way back.”
Muhammad has spent the season under the tutelage of former major leaguer Tony Fossas in Daytona, the Reds’ high-A club. He started in middle relief, struggling to regain a three-quarters arm angle and rebuild his confidence. Originally what Fossas described as “a maximum-effort guy” whose over-the-top delivery got him hit too often, Muhammad has improved his control and consistency.
After a disappointing June, he is 1-0 with a 2.79 ERA and six of six in save opportunities in July. His ERA is almost three runs better at home, though opponents bat 50 points better.
“He’s probably one of the finest young men I’ve ever coached in my seven years,” said Fossas, a lefty who spent 12 seasons in the majors. “He’s got major league stuff. Still being young, he’s working on his slider, fastball command, and having a third pitch. All those pitches are a work in progress. The young man has a chance to make it someday.”
A 49th-round pick out of CCM in 2010, Muhammad was trying to establish himself as a genuine prospect when bone chips in his knee forced him to have surgery on Aug. 8, 2013. Muhammad was told he would likely never play baseball again but pushed himself through an excruciating rehab and returned July 3, 2014 — with a mid-90s fastball and better control.
Muhammad has a 5-6 record and a 3.51 ERA in 41 innings for Daytona this year.
“He totally committed,” said Jeff Graupe, the Reds’ director of player development. “I’m really proud of where he is right now.”
Said Muhammad: “I’m just having fun with it. I’ve been dreaming about playing professional baseball since I could walk. Being able to do something I love is not a job for me. It’s a game. It doesn’t matter how old I get, it will always be a game. … I don’t feel like I have to play baseball. I want to play because I love the game, and it makes me happy.”