MESA, Ariz. -- On a day Arizonans would consider cold but Chicagoans would just shrug off, Ryan Kalish joined about a dozen early bird players at the Cubs' new Spring Training facility. He may have been the happiest in the group.
Kalish, 25, has a new lease on his baseball life.
As a high school sophomore, Kalish threw a seven-inning no-hitter. Scouts say he didn't swing and miss at a pitch his senior year. He was a quarterback, strong safety and punter for his high school football team, which won a division championship. He was considering playing college football until the Red Sox selected him in the ninth-round in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.
He had known nothing but success until April 2011, when he crashed into an outfield wall. Now, Kalish and Peyton Manning have a lot in common, and it has nothing to do with the Super Bowl.
Kalish should've been on the Red Sox in April '11, but a crowded outfield forced the team to send him to Triple-A Pawtucket, and that's when the trouble began.
"I dove for a ball in 2011, and that messed up my left shoulder and, consequently, my right [shoulder], and it all snowballed," Kalish said Thursday. "My neck, it was tingling and burning by the end of games, and I was getting shooting pain in my right arm. I got a ton of opinions. There were a lot of mixed opinions, and you have to weigh through that. It was a wild ride. I'm glad it's over."
What he eventually needed was cervical fusion surgery, which involves the removal of a disc in his neck, and the insertion of a metal plate. It's the same surgery Manning had, and Kalish had the same doctor, spinal specialist Robert Watkins, and even stayed in the same hospital room.
"I had two shoulder [procedures] over the last three years," said Kalish, who missed nearly all of 2011 after surgery on his left shoulder. "It's been really humbling. It's more than humbling, it's been crazy. You go from doing really well in the big leagues in 2010 to three years of just trying to get healthy.
"It makes you appreciate the game more," he said. "It's awesome to be out here with whoever my teammates are. I'm still getting to know people. It's interesting and fun and a new experience. ... I'm just blessed with the chance to come back."
There were several times during Kalish's rehab when he didn't know if he'd ever play baseball again.
"Shoulder surgery is one thing, but once you start messing around with your neck and especially when the pain doesn't go away, it's almost like you don't want to come back," he said. "There's points where there's that doubt and [you wonder], 'Do you want to do this?' That's just natural, and you push through it. Now, I'm waking up at 6:20 every day, and it's awesome."
He became a free agent last December, and Kalish's agent said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called to talk. Epstein and Kalish know each other from their time together with the Red Sox.
"He's always kind of been a people person," Kalish said of Epstein. "There's business -- that comes with everything -- but with him it's more than that. He wants to know what's going through your head, what you've been doing, talking about TV shows, and then we get to business. I like that."
Epstein and Kalish chatted about random things, then worked out a Minor League deal, and now he's in Mesa, getting to know his new teammates and new surroundings.
"You know [Epstein] is trying to build something here [with the Cubs], and for me, it's a good chance to be part of something new and refreshing and fun, and, obviously, if we can build what we want in this city, it's going to be a really good time," Kalish said.
No one needs to tell Kalish about the effect winning a championship has on a city starved for one. He saw that in Boston. Maybe that's why Epstein wanted Kalish in the clubhouse.
"I have a lot of really cool attitudes that I learned from there, a lot of wining attitudes, obviously," Kalish said of his days with the Red Sox. "It's been a crazy, really good experience. I'm really stoked to have this [chance]."
There isn't one way to build a championship team, he said. What's needed is players giving 100 percent.
"If you concentrate on winning, all the other stuff -- the numbers, the money, the contract -- will fall into place," he said. "You have to get back to the roots of why you play baseball. We all play because we loved it as kids, and still everyone loves it, but there's business. I think that's what we should get back to here is enjoying the game and trying to play for each other. That's what I'm going to do."
That message means more to Kalish since he almost didn't get a chance to play again. Cervical fusion surgery is rare. Kalish had talked to pitcher Vicente Padilla, who also had the procedure done.
"It's scary because you're getting a level fused," he said. "I feel great. I'm as healthy as I've been."
No complaints about his shoulders, his neck or even the chill in the air.
"It's so fun to just go out and take BP -- it's crazy," he said, smiling.
Manning would understand.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.