David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
“They’re all gonna break sooner or later.”
The quote is attributed to longtime baseball scout Bill “Yogi” Young, and he’s referring to the ulnar collateral ligament, which is the star of a new book titled “The Arm” by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.
After covering the sport for more than two decades, I haven’t come across a more comprehensive examination involving the infamous UCL, from almost every angle.
This isn’t merely a cold, clinical look at the nuts and bolts of Tommy John surgery, although Passan does take us inside the operating room, describing the exposed nerves and cadaver- transplant tendons with medical journal detail.
It goes far beyond that, tracing both the physical and emotional scars of the rehab process, thanks to the unfettered access granted by Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson, the latter a two-time survivor.
Another bonus: a rare interview with Sandy Koufax, whose own elbow issues probably would have made him the original patient if the medical technology had been available during his abbreviated career.
These days, media and fans have been conditioned to treat Tommy John surgery like a necessary evil, as much a part of the game as rain delays. It seems as common as a hamstring strain.
But in peeking behind the rehab curtain, starting with that first cut of a surgeon’s blade, you get a whole different perspective. What’s often shrugged off as routine hardly is ordinary for pitchers, who are forced to put their careers on hold for 15 to 18 months, if not longer.
Before surgery, Coffey emphatically tells renowned orthopedist Neal ElAttrache that he wants a spare tendon of his own to be used rather than one farmed from a cadaver, which he compares to “a used car with 40,000 miles on it,” adding, “I don’t know what it’s been through.”
Coffey doesn’t get his wish, though. ElAttrache unsuccessfully tries four different spots — in each wrist and each thigh — before a nurse fetches the donor ligament. Then Passan describes the multiple drillings into the bone, along with meticulously navigating around the ulnar nerve, which, if damaged, could render the pitching hand useless.
And that’s only the beginning of a process that seems familiar to us by now but really isn’t for those who haven’t experienced it firsthand.
Think about it. Everyone knows that four of the Mets’ young pitching stars already have endured Tommy John surgery, and that Zack Wheeler still is away on rehab. Yet why it happens, and what goes into repairing the UCL for a major-league workload again, cannot be easily explained.
Passan gets closer than anyone has, by shifting gears between the Coffey/Hudson closeups and a macro view of the UCL epidemic, from the anthropological origins of early man’s throwing motion for spears and rocks to the primitive thinking that pollutes youth baseball.
Passan actually uses most of his arrows on the travel-team phenomenon, or what he describes as the “youth baseball-industrial complex.” He also suggests that it exploits the health of adolescent players for profit.
“The future generation of baseball pitchers lives in a system that takes undeveloped and underdeveloped arms,” Passan writes, “and pressures them to show off for the radar guns they’re taught will determine their future.”
A few of the stats he uncovers, courtesy of the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI): Kids who pitched more than 100 innings in a calendar year were 3½ times more likely to get injured than those who didn’t. Also, ASMI founder Dr. James Andrews has gone from one or two Tommy John surgeries a year on high school players in 1997 to roughly 80 or 90 now. One of the chapters that deals with this youth baseball abuse is titled, not surprisingly, “Dummyball.”
Executives have realized by now that the significant arm injuries occurring at the major- league level stem from overuse or dangerous mechanics during the schoolboy years of a pitcher’s career. Changing that system, however, remains a work in progress, with educating parents being the key to any success.
While the far-reaching impact of Tommy John surgery is the book’s central focus, it does so in relation to the value of pitching itself, providing a behind- the-scenes look into the Cubs’ 2014 free-agent negotiations with Jon Lester as well as Scott Boras’ recent defense of innings limits, most notably involving Matt Harvey last season.
“We’re in a perishable business,” Boras says. “That’s why the rarity of winning is so difficult. Because you have to not only diagnose his talent, you have to diagnose his durability and you have to have good fortune to get all of that.”
The later chapters delve into promising studies involving injury prevention while at the same time acknowledging that real solutions still are far off for a game whose future success may depend on them.
n PED test: Passing grade?
As much as the Biogenesis bust was a PR success for Major League Baseball, the fact that none of those suspended actually tested positive for a banned substance raised a more troubling question. Is it too easy to avoid detection?
As MLB officials correctly point out, no testing program is 100 percent effective, for any sport. But in nabbing Jenrry Mejia three times last season, and already catching Phillies reliever Daniel Stumpf and Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello this month, baseball’s system does work.
Stumpf and Colabello both tested positive for Turinabol, an anabolic steroid described as more helpful for recovery than strictly gaining muscle mass. Like Mejia, however, Colabello acted stunned by his 80-game suspension.
“On March 13, I got one of the scariest and most definitely the least expected phone calls of my entire life,” Colabello said in a statement released Friday by the Players Association. “I was informed by the Players Association that a banned substance was found in my urine. I have spent every waking moment since that day trying to find an answer as to why or how? The only thing I know is that I would never compromise the integrity of the game of baseball.”
Such a response is not uncommon among alleged PED offenders. But other than Ryan Braun, no player has beaten the test on appeal, or had their pleas of innocence vindicated.
n New power generation
Young players are hitting home runs at a rate not seen in the past four decades. The sport’s top sluggers currently are 25 or younger: Bryce Harper (23) and Trevor Story (23) are atop baseball’s leaderboard, followed by Nolan Arenado (25).
Through Wednesday, 130 of the first 438 home runs were hit by players 25 or younger, a 29.7 percent clip. The pace is the highest since 1975, when that demographic was responsible for 29.9 percent (808 of 2,698).