I have a 10-year-old half-brother. He knows what I do, in the sense that he knows I watch a lot of baseball. He asked me recently to show him how to throw a curveball. “No, not yet,” I said, then mostly to myself and under my breath, “You’ll need Tommy John.”
“Who’s Tommy John?”
The kid doesn’t miss much. He can recite all the presidents in chronological order and has read more than some adults I know. So “elbow surgery” wasn’t a satisfactory answer. He was fascinated by it, and rightfully so, because it’s a fascinating procedure. It’s fascinating because of the history behind it, because of the high success rate and because people continue to need it due to poor mechanics and overuse.
I sat down with Charlie Morton recently to chat with him about his rehabilitation from the surgery. He feels stronger, he’s throwing well and he hasn’t had any setbacks. “The way he’s throwing now, you wouldn’t even know he had surgery,” said Pirates special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict, who has worked with Morton in Bradenton, Fla. during his rehab.
Technically, it’s ligament replacement surgery, using a tendon from another part of the body to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow. That’s the ligament that resists the tension created when forces pull your forearm away from your body – like the tension created when you throw a pitch.
The results of the surgery have only improved since Dr. Frank Jobe created the procedure in 1974, and studies show that around 85 percent of pitchers who have it return to their previous level of performance. But pitchers continue to shred their UCLs. The knowledge of how the injury occurs has not translated into instruction on how to prevent it.
“There’s no guarantee that you change all these things about you to avoid re-injuring it, and you’re just a totally different guy, and you’re not successful at all,” Morton said, underscoring the risks inherent in changing mechanics to avoid injury.
Morton said he didn’t think his lowered arm slot contributed to the injury, and Benedict said the arm slot change reduced stress on the elbow, if anything. Morton thinks the initial injury began possibly as far back as 2007 or ’08. Therefore, the hip injury in 2011 did not cause it, Morton and Benedict said, but it could have exacerbated it.
The number of factors contributing to the injury, from strength and conditioning to mechanics to pitch counts to pitch selection to lack of rest, creates a situation without easy solutions. But after a month of research and interviews, I e-mailed my dad last week: "Don't let Sam throw curveballs."
As the week progresses, we’ll look at Morton and the rest of the Pirates eligible for arbitration. The Pirates must tender them a contract by Friday. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return celebrating my Irish reaching the national championship.
-- Photo courtesy of Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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