My Tommy John StoryPosted on Wednesday, March 26th, 2014
In our About Us page, I briefly mention the fact that I had an “early retirement” from baseball and that it was due to Tommy John surgery. With the surgery popping up seemingly every week on MLB.com and other news sites (most recently Kris Medlen & Brandon Beachy are having Tommy John surgery for the second & third time respectively!) I thought that I’d share my story, because I think it’s important for parents and players to hear.
I always had success as a pitcher. I had a middling to below average fastball, a good curveball, great changeup, and plus control. From a young age, I had a feel for pitching and confidence that I could throw any pitch how and where I wanted. As a result I rarely walked anyone and worked to get hitters timing off and frustrate them to my fullest extent. I loved it.
Things really clicked for me my junior year after I gained some physical strength and went 9-2 for an 18-3 top ranked team. I received all sorts of press that year, and was even selected to the first team 1998 All-Met Baseball Team in the Washington Post
What went wrong?
Inklings of an issue started the winter before. I started playing more summer ball the years prior, but also added winter pitching clinics to the agenda. (Red Flag #1) The winter of my junior year, I started Pinkman Pitching. Based in Chantilly VA, Coach Pinkman had built himself a substantial pitching clinic and used advanced video technology to slow down your motion. The issue, however, was that there wasn’t much space. It was too cold to long-toss, and the short clinic pitching sessions hardly allow much time to warm up. (Red Flag #2). We always seemed to hurry up our warm ups because of time issues, and then Coach Pinkman pulled out the radar gun. So naturally, with the radar gun out and with little warmup, I threw as hard as I could. I was young and immature and looking back, that was a huge mistake. That winter, on a few occasions I felt twinges in my elbow, but nothing significant. It was the first time I had ever had any pain.
That spring, I blossomed as a pitcher. But, as typical with a lot of Tommy John surgeries, my innings totals accelerated that year as result of my success. I do not believe that was an issue for two reasons. One, my coach at St. Albans had a fantastic warm-up routine, and my arm always felt great. Two, I generally went all seven innings, and typically finished in the 70-90 pitch count range (one of the benefits of having great control.) As a result, pitch count was not an issue.
But then one really dumb incident occurred…(Red Flag#3)
That summer, I played on a travel baseball team, and we were at Vanderbilt. I had pitched a few times for the team, but got little time elsewhere on the field. We had a double header on the first weekend of the trip and the first game was at 1pm and the second game was at 6pm. The coach asked me to start the second game, and told me I would not play at all in the first game. As a result, I did not warm up before game 1, we had 6 hours until I had to pitch, and I was told to rest. I didn’t even put on my cleats.
Then, our starter ran into some trouble in the start of the 7th inning. Trying to save pitchers for the tournament (I guess), the coach yelled my name, and told me to hurry up, get in the bullpen, and that I was coming in relief. Without any proper warm up, and some quick shoe tying, I sprinted to the bullpen and immediately started throwing the ball hard and I felt a pop in my elbow.
I managed to finish the inning (though something was clearly off), and was still scheduled to start game two. My elbow swelled up between games, and a few days later an MRI showed that I had a partial tear to my UCL. The rest is history. I didn’t fully tear it for another 6 months, but pitching was always a bit hairy after that moment until the final snap. As far as I am concerned, that was the moment my career ended.
What are the takeaways?
- The first is that your arm is a cherished commodity. Treat it like gold, and always take the time to warm up properly. You only have one, and once that first injury occurs, problems seem to always show up and it’s never the same. A common rumor is that you will come back stronger, but you will not have access to the Atlanta Braves rehab team and not see the typical MLB results.
- Kids: take more time to loosen up if you aren’t loose yet. Show up early if it takes you a bit longer than other players. It’s your arm, the only one you have, and you have to always listen to your body.
- Parents: make sure your kids are properly prepared for every game and teach them how to properly take care of their arm. If you don’t know how, we have great drills on our website that show you how to warm-up as a player, and how to warm teams up before practices and games.
- Coaches: Make sure your players take care of their arms. It should be a priority. Make sure that you have a reasonable pitching game plan in advance (with backups), especially with weekends with two or more games, and stick to it. It’s difficult as a coach (I get it I’ve been there), but mistakes like mine are avoidable.
- Simplify sports. Data is showing that we are professionalizing sports at too young of an age. I did not need to be throwing in the winter, especially in improper conditions. We should be conscious of how much our children are throwing, and include full seasons of real rest, especially for pitchers.
- Don’t be afraid to express your concerns as a player. I should have stood up for myself on multiple occasions, because some of it was avoidable. But coaches make mistakes too; they are thinking about what’s in the best interest of 15-20 players, may have a project due tomorrow at work, their dog needs to go out, are distracted and often make impulsive decisions based on immediate problems.
- Finally, communicate as parents. As a coach, I had tons of parents whose kids played on multiple teams who would talk to me before every game. Great. Multiple teams is a great way to get more at bats for a player, and to get experience playing a tougher skill level or new position.
- Notice I highlighted “at bats.” Be careful with pitching and throwing. On my team, those parents did a great job of communicating their pitching schedule for the other teams, and it really forced me to think about the pitching schedule further in advance (which is great and I encourage all coaches to do it). I actually suggest taking it a step further, and limit where players who just pitched play. I avoided playing pitchers at catcher and shortstop and would put them at DH if possible.
And specifically for Youth Baseball Players!
- REST! For young arms, this is essential. I allude to it in the previous point, but young arms are really loose and flexible at a young age, which is great. BUT they are developing. Make sure that players get proper rest and recovery after they pitch. If they have a bad outing, let’s not take them in the backyard or in the bullpen and practice pitching for 30 minutes immediately after the game. Let’s give it a few days at a minimum.
- Pitch Counts! So I’ll admit, I was the exception to the rule. For whatever reason I could throw strikes and lots of them. But for young arms, let’s maintain strict guidance on pitch counts. Organizations like Little League are doing a great job of implementing these into their rule books. Let’s not cheat the system. It’s always in the best interest of the player to follow it, no exceptions.
I hope that by sharing my story that I am able to help players avoid future injury, like mine. I am happy to answer any questions.
P.S. What is Tommy John surgery?
Tommy John surgery is Ulnar Collateral Ligament Replacement Surgery. The UCL is the equivalent of the ACL in your knee, it keeps your elbow together while throwing. If you hold your arm out in front of you, with your palm facing the sky, the ligament runs along the left side of your arm at your elbow (if you’re right handed). They generally replace the ligament with tendons. This is why people say your elbow is stronger after the fact because tendons are larger than ligaments. Sometimes they take the tendon from the thigh, but in my case, they took the tendon from my left wrist/forearm.