What I learned from Tommy John

Photo of former MLB pitcher Tommy John, taken ...

Tommy John; Image via Wikipedia

I recently read a great article in Baseball Digest about how “Tommy John” surgery has saved so many pitchers’ careers.  Having underwent the surgery myself at age 17 I was immediately drawn to the article, as I could relate to nearly every point the author made.  Historically, articles about Tommy John and the surgery that bears his name always touch upon the fact that the rehab afterwards requires a great deal of focus and determination and they always talk about the adversity that a player must overcome in order to make a comeback.  Usually the articles will then shift focus to the causes of the injury; why the UCL (ulna collateral ligament) tear occurs.  Is it because of overuse?  Is it because of how competitive players and coaches are?  Is it that young players get introduced to breaking balls too soon?  Is it because of poor mechanics?  Rarely do any of these articles talk about the personal, emotional experience of the player.  I cannot say for certain why I had to undergo the surgery, but my guess is that it was a combination of the aforementioned reasons that were to blame.  I never looked back on the reasons though because to me it never mattered and I soon realized the surgery and subsequent rehab was a blessing and made me into the player and even the person I am today.  The appreciation for baseball was reinstated in me.

From a young age, I considered myself better than average at baseball.  For no reason that I am aware of, I was able to throw harder than most players my age and, for most of my career, I was able to hit respectably.  I always played for the love of the game and hardly thought of my future with it.  All I cared about was the team I was playing for and how we were going to win the next game.  I participated in no other sports competitively.  So, in the offseason, I would hit in the cages and continue to throw off indoor mounds.  At times in the summer, I would play in more games than days in the week and it was great.

In high school, I was having great success and was fortunate enough to be in the process of choosing a school for which to play collegiate baseball.  Then, while on the mound, in the last inning of the first game of a fall high school doubleheader, I threw a fastball and felt a pain in my elbow that I never felt before.  I thought to myself, that’s odd, but I still need to get this batter.  One more painful pitch took care of the batter and the game, and I thought to myself, “Thank goodness I don’t need to throw another pitch today”.  I’ll save you the trials and tribulations leading up to the procedure, but about 10 months later, I had Tommy John surgery.

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  A fan of the Tex...

Image by Getty Images

For as long as I could remember baseball was my life and I was now faced with the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to play baseball for quite some time.  It was a tough pill to swallow at first, but I made the decision early on to do everything I needed to do in order to get back on that field.  It seemed unfathomable when, shortly after surgery, I was in an arm brace that limited my arm flexion.  Over 12 weeks the brace was calibrated to progressively reach maximum range of motion a few degrees at a time.

Around the sixth month post operation, I was told I could begin tossing a ball.  A simple feat I took for granted that now brought me so much happiness.  I stood not farther than ten feet apart from my trainer, glove on my left hand and ball in my right.  I cautiously brought my arm down, around and released.  I felt no pain and all I could do was smile.  I wanted the ball back as quickly as it left my hand.  I could have stayed there all day and lobbed the ball to my trainer, but was certainly limited based on my doctor’s instructions.  Following a post-surgery throwing program, with proper resting in between each session, I threw for several more weeks off the mound, extending my throwing distance each time out.  Sometime during the process, I was cleared to actually be on the field for any non-throwing activity.  I quickly found a position that most other players shied away from – “the bucket.”

For those of you unfamiliar with “the bucket”, it is basically ball shagging.  During an organized batting practice session, there is usually at least one person who fields the balls from the players fielding the batted batting practice balls.  This player, normally a freshman, would stand behind a protective net with a bucket to put the balls into to run them in to the batting practice pitcher.  Now, I say most players avoided “the bucket” because, in my opinion, everyone had too much pride.  Most, if not all, freshman on a college team used to be the star player at their local high school and used to being “top dog.”  Now at college, they all thought they were too good to do such a demoralizing task for the team.  I embraced it.  So many high school players who were unable to play baseball in college would have embraced it.  It meant the world to me.  I was finally able to be on the field again and, more importantly, I was finally able to feel like I was making a contribution to the team.  I enjoyedthe simple act of accepting the throws (or the weak tosses that hardly reached a 20 foot circumference of me, but that was just the upperclassmen picking on a freshman – don’t think I didn’t notice), but I would find always find myself locked in on the batter.  For one, for safety, but also in hopes that I would actually get the opportunity to field a live ball, and when I did I felt like a kid again.  I was slowly re-introduced to a game that I took for granted for so long.

Overall, the nature of the game of baseball is failing.  To paraphrase Ted Williams, If you fail 7 out of 10 times at bat, you are considered a good hitter.  So many young players dwell too much on the failures of the game (MLB players should because they get paid to dwell on those failures).

English: An image of Major League Baseball hal...

Ted Williams; Image via Wikipedia

But, if I can offer any advice to a young player it would be to simply enjoy the game and don’t ever take it for granted.  I would never wish an injury on anyone, but I bet any player who has had an injury that kept them out of the game can relate to my experience.  Ever since my surgery and rehab I have had a whole new appreciation for the game.  Perhaps that is why I still competitively play today, even though I have been out of college for almost six years now.  In my league, I am becoming the “old guy”, as not too many continue to play after their college days are done, but I was given a second chance almost eleven years ago to play again and I still embrace that.  While I was too young to remember if I was excited the very first time I picked up a ball , I certainly remember the first day I was able to throw again after surgery and I take that excitement with me every time I step on to the field.  I know I will stop eventually playing competitively once I fail to live up to my expectations, or if life’s events don’t allow me to participate, but until then, I want to be 60 feet, 6 inches away from the action and that is where I plan on staying.

– Joe S. from Mattingly 

Joe Smeraglino is the current Operations Manager for Mattingly Sports.  He was a relief pitcher for UCONN from 2003 – 2006 and had a reasonably sucessful college career.  He is currently pitching for the West Haven Twilight League in Connecticut.  

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2 responses to “What I learned from Tommy John

  1. Hi Smerg!

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