Every pitcher who has ever rehabilitated from Tommy John elbow surgery has confronted this daily crossroads — at the intersection of monotony and physical impairment — which is why many of them have returned to action, some 12 months following their surgery, with a Fortnite addiction or a phone full of pictures of bass dangling from the ends of fishing poles.
But Suter, a 29-year-old left-hander for the Milwaukee Brewers, had a plan following his surgery in July 2018 for dealing with that crossroads at the end of each day of rehabbing at the team’s spring training complex in Phoenix. He would use those hours in the most productive way imaginable: He would help, in whatever small way he could, to save the world.
“It was a case of channeling the boredom or monotony of Tommy John rehab,” said Suter, who is on a rehab assignment and could return by the end of August. “The timing of it was — everything just seemed like it was meant to be. I took it as a first step in a mission. If I’m able to keep playing baseball, I want to keep taking steps.”
Suter’s mission is environmental advocacy, which took root as a high school freshman, when his mother took him to see Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and grew during his studies at Harvard as a dual major in environmental science and public policy.
By the time the 31st-round draft pick in 2012 showed up in the Brewers’ clubhouse for his major league debut in August 2016, he was already committed to reducing waste on a personal level, amusing teammates by pulling a reusable plate, utensils, coffee cup and water bottle out at meal times. At their Cincinnati home, the Suters — Brent, wife Erin and 10-month-old son Liam — have solar panels on the roof, take fast showers, avoid beef, compost as much as they can and use recyclable grocery bags.
In the years since his debut, Suter — 13-11 with a 3.91 ERA across three big league seasons despite a fastball that averages 86 mph — has expanded his mission across the Brewers organization and the sport. When he realized the Brewers went through some 20 cases of bottled water a day during spring training camp, he began approaching teammates and staff members, one by one, to commit to using a reusable water bottle. Within weeks, he had close to 100 people on board.
“It went over surprisingly well, especially the water bottle thing,” Suter said. “Even my most conservative teammates have come up to me and said, ‘This is really cool that you’re out here making a difference.’ ”
Along with Brewers teammate Ryan Braun, Suter joined Players for the Planet, an advocacy group started by ex-big leaguer Chris Dickerson that spearheaded a cleanup project in the Dominican Republic this past winter, with Robinson Canó and Nelson Cruz among the Dominican players who participated.
The elbow injury last July was a devastating blow initially, leaving Suter in tears when doctors confirmed the ligament tear, dooming him to a solid year-plus away from a big league mound. But he pivoted quickly, imagining the possibilities for his environmental advocacy. Among the first steps he took was to launch a social media campaign, with a ready-made hashtag — #StrikeOutWaste — to publicize his efforts.
“Spreading awareness is the best thing this campaign can do,” he said. “It gets people to look outside their daily lives and look at the planet. It’s the first step of hopefully many campaigns.”
Suter quickly realized his efforts dovetailed with Major League Baseball’s environmental initiatives — which, among other things, have seen composting stations and energy-saving LED lights appear at MLB stadiums over the past several years — and a partnership was launched.
According to an MLB spokesperson, all 30 teams diverted 20,000 tons of recycled or compostable waste in 2018, while 18 stadiums have switched to LED lights as of Opening Day 2019. Five teams, including the Brewers, have eliminated plastic straws from their concessions, and 12 operate their own gardens.
As far as Suter is concerned, that is merely a good start.
“My goal,” he said, “is for every stadium to be using only compostable materials for concessions, with compost piles next to trash cans. Every stadium using solar panels, and using gardens to supplement their concession supply. Having fans encouraged to bring water bottles instead of using plastic ones. Using no plastic whatsoever. Players using only reusable bottles and cups in the dugout. Getting LED lights at all 30 stadiums.
“We’re getting there. There’s been a lot of progress. If we can keep the momentum and awareness growing, it can keep snowballing into positive change.”
In the late stages of his return from elbow surgery, Suter has found his down time is no longer so plentiful. He hopes to return to the Brewers in time to make an impact on their playoff drive. They entered the week trailing the first-place Chicago Cubs by 2½ games in the National League Central and were a half-game back of the second NL wild-card spot.
But there is an offseason still to come, and hopefully a long career in the majors, followed — he hopes — by a second career in environmental advocacy, perhaps as a “green” consultant to professional sports leagues.
“It’s definitely a life mission,” Suter said. “That was already a certainty, and having a son has only made it more so. I want to be able to tell my son I’m doing whatever I can so he’ll grow up having the same kind of Earth I grew up knowing.”