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By Josh Herzenberg - Strasburg Express
Baseball is a humbling sport. It is a sport that requires its participants to master the ability to rebound and progress through failure.
Last season, Major League baseball's season batting average was .257. That means that every single time someone stepped up to the plate, that player would record an out nearly 75 percent of the time. If a Major League player's batting average is above .300 (meaning that they make an out 70 percent of the time they have an at-bat), they are generally considered an All-Star and one of the best players in the game. If anyone knows of another profession that is willing to pay a hefty salary for a successful performance 3 out of every 10 attempts, please send me a direct e-mail and point me in the right direction of that employer.
As a pitcher, it is my job to ensure that the hitters I am facing remain as unsuccessful as possible. Hitting a baseball is considered arguably the most difficult thing to do in any sport, and it is my responsibility to make that a true statement when I am competing on the field. The ability to do so lies within the preparation one puts into their craft.
Throughout the offseason, I made it a point to make myself the best possible pitcher I could, both mentally and physically. I worked incredibly hard to perfect all aspects of my game and allow myself for the optimum levels of competing once the season rolled around. And frankly, I think I have been doing a pretty good job of it up until a few days ago.
I am a junior, and knew coming into the year that I'd be assuming a role in the starting rotation this year after two solid years in the bullpen. Coming into my start on Friday, April 22, I was undefeated and had an ERA of 1.44 through 50 innings pitched. Four of my wins came against teams that were nationally ranked or had been in the NCAA tournament last year. I'd had five starts and two relief appearances, and had never failed to pitch into the 8th inning in any of my starts (9 IP, 7 1/3 IP, 8 IP, 9 IP, 8 2/3 IP respectively).
The game on April 22 was a big one. We were tied for first place in our conference with the team that finished as the national runner-up last season. It was me against their ace, in what was supposed to be a 9-inning pitcher's duel at their place. The local media hyped the game up a bit, and the place was lively upon game time.
I felt great in the bullpen before the game, and great when I stepped on the mound for the bottom of the 1st. I never had as much confidence in myself and my ability to perform at any point in my life as I did going into that game. I KNEW I was going to pitch great. I KNEW my team was going to come out on top, one step closer to a conference championship. I was aware that this game probably had big implications on Conference Pitcher of the Year and All-America awards for each respective hurler. And I was loving every second of it.
I retired the first batter of the game and then surrendered a double to the two hitter. The third hitter worked the count full, and I came set with the intention to throw a curveball, hoping to backdoor a good hitter and buckle him for the second out of the inning. I took a look back at the runner leading off of 2nd base and lifted my leg to deliver the pitch home. My mechanics felt smooth and easy, just like I'd felt in all the pitches I had previously thrown throughout the entire season. I drove forward toward the plate and began the rapid descent down the mound. I positioned my fingers appropriately on top of the ball, getting the seams in alignment to get the maximum spin and break I could get on a curveball. I released the pitch just like I'd always released every other pitch.
And I heard an explosion.
I watched as the ball went behind the batter and trickled toward the backstop. Before I had the opportunity to react and attempt to take the customary action of a pitcher's responsibility to cover home plate on a wild pitch with a runner on second, I got dizzy. It felt as if someone cut my forearm from the rest of my arm. I fell to the ground in agony, holding what was left of my arm and trying to muster up enough courage to save face and stand up. The trainer, head coach, pitching coach, umpire and infielders were at my side in what seemed like a second. The trainer began to do some therapeutic stretching methods, but I knew deep down that nothing would help. I finally caught my breathe after about 30 seconds and walked off the field to a polite applause from the crowd.
I got in my parent's car that night, holding my head in my hands and quietly sobbing. What was left of my left arm ... which didn't feel like much of anything at that point ... was throbbing. I was headed to New York City, where an orthopedic surgeon would be scheduling an MRI to determine the fate of my baseball future.
I began drowning myself in the sorrows of my own self-pity. I figured that my career was pretty much over. This infamous "pop" that so many ballplayers spoke of happened to me. I just knew it. My ulnar collateral ligament - what held my elbow intact - was blown to pieces. I'd need an operation.
The first reconstruction of a UCL was performed in 1974 by Dr. Frank Jobe on a talented Major League left-handed pitcher who had elbow pain. This procedure became a success and no longer was known as UCL reconstruction, but rather took the name of the pitcher who'd received the operation. Today, it is famously known as "Tommy John Surgery."
Tommy John Surgery is a term that is synonymous with a career-threatening, monotonous, painful battle with physical therapists, surgeons and one's own mental toughness. The rehabilitation process for Tommy John generally takes a minimum of 10 months, but it is generally understood that pitchers take nearly two years to fully recover from the surgery if their rehab went appropriately. It truly is a life-changing procedure, and being a college pitcher with one year of eligibility left, it loomed like Godzilla in the face of my baseball career.
I spent the night of April 23 at a bar in my hometown of White Plains, N.Y., with my girlfriend and my best friend to commemorate what was supposed to be a great night in my life ... my 21st birthday. I sat at the barstool with hip-hop music blaring and people dancing all around me, attempting as best I could to resist the temptation to drown away the excruciating pain in my elbow with the "celebratory" free drinks that were being thrown my way. Once again, falling into a pit of emotional misery and nightmares.
I have had a huge range of emotions throughout the last five days. I left a puddle of tears in a locker room. I've thrown quite a few haymakers at the punching bag in the basement of my off campus house. I've engulfed myself in self-pity, and suffocated in the terror I feel. I've had dreams of walking through Times Square and seeing "TOMMY JOHN SURGERY. YOU'RE DONE" flashing on the big screen in front of me.
And then this afternoon, while I stood on the side of the field as I watched my team practice without me, my cell phone rang. It was the orthopedic surgeon. My MRI results were in.
After review, he claimed that he saw no conclusive evidence of a torn UCL. In fact, the UCL looked strong and healthy. There was a lot of inflammation and swelling, and a partial tear of a muscle called the flexor digitorum profundus, a muscle that is part of the forearm system that helps connect the elbow to the fingers. He proclaimed the injury is an acute injury and is incredibly painful and weakening (I responded with a sarcastic "Yeah, I'm aware," which caused him to chuckle). However, there is no surgical procedure required. In fact, what he described as "hardcore" physical therapy could get me back to the mound in as quickly as four weeks.
Unfortunately, it seems as if that ill-fated curveball last Friday is the last pitch I'll be throwing for the Oneonta State Red Dragons this spring. But the glimmer of hope just got a little brighter with the news. With proper rehab and work ethic, I'll still be able to don a Strasburg Express uniform this summer, with complete health. I'll still be able to enjoy the game that has given me so much pleasure throughout my life, without having a 4-inch scar on the inside of my elbow to tell a year's worth of a story. And God-willing, my health and enjoyment will stay with me into my senior season, and much further, and continue to carry me into many future endeavors of my life.