Book Review: “The Arm”

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Book Review: “The Arm”
May 5, 2016

On April 13, I wasn’t supposed to be on an operating table.

I was supposed to be on a bus headed north from south Texas back to Springfield, Mo. after my  first two series this season with the Class AA Springfield Cardinals. I was supposed to have started our fourth game of the year against the Corpus Christi Hooks. I was supposed to be healthy.

I wasn’t.

 

Two weeks before, I was throwing in the bullpen, a final tuneup before my first start of the season. The tugging sensation in my elbow had been bad before, but now it was unbearable. Before, I could get through the pain; this was a different story. I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t want to spend another day wondering whether or not my arm would feel good when I picked up a baseball.

I informed our training staff of the problem and had an X-Ray that afternoon and an MRI the following morning. Less than 24 hours later, I was told my ulnar collateral ligament was almost completely torn.

I was shocked. I had never missed any time for any injury at all. I always pitched, no matter what. Now that wouldn’t be possible. I was told by multiple doctors that given the nature of the tear, conservative treatment was not a viable option.

Nine days after throwing my last pitch for a long time, my name was added to a long list that keeps growing, seemingly every day: Tommy John surgery recipient.

After my surgery in April, I wasn’t able to do much. Rehab wouldn’t start for another week, so I had some time on my hands. My girlfriend’s mother recommended I read a new book that had come out earlier in the month called “The Arm” by Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports’ lead baseball columnist. She sent me the book and I finished it within two days, mesmerized by the stories and information Passan presented.

In over three years of research, he followed the paths of two big league pitchers, Todd Coffey and Daniel Hudson, who were each attempting to come back from their second UCL reconstructive surgeries. He consulted the top orthopedic surgeons in the world to get their take on why baseball pitcher injuries are at an all-time high. He shed light on the multi-million dollar youth travel baseball industry, which Passan argues isn’t doing its part to combat the injury epidemic in the game.

Passan was looking for answers. Like me. I keep thinking, “Why did my UCL tear? I had never missed a start. Why all of a sudden could I just not do it anymore?” This was Passan’s objective. Why are guys like me getting hurt? His finding: the arm is a complete mystery and we’re not even close to having an answer.

There is a common argument in baseball that throwing is intrinsically bad for you. The arm was not made to throw a 5 ounce projectile. Well, not necessarily, Passan argues. The human body is capable of incredible things and throwing is certainly one of them. He consulted an anthropologist who described how early humans needed to throw for hunting purposes. We became so good at throwing that our shoulders can internally rotate at almost 8,000 degrees per second, faster than any other movement the body can produce. The argument that throwing is bad for you is moot. However, throwing a 5 ounce ball over 100 times at 100-percent intensity is another story.

Yet, some pitchers last a career without spending a day on the disabled list. Exhibit A is Nolan Ryan, the fireballing starting pitcher who would routinely pop 100 m.p.h. on a radar gun and logged 5,300 innings until he retired at age 46 without ever requiring surgery. How did Nolan Ryan stay off the operating table? Again, the arm is a mystery. So was Nolan Ryan.

What we do know about the arm is that it can give a ballplayer some of the greatest moments  his life and then all of a sudden turn his world upside down.

Such are the stories of Coffey and Hudson. Coffey, a major league veteran, and Hudson, a young pitcher with a 100 m.p.h. heater, both underwent their second Tommy John surgeries of their careers in the summer of 2013.

While both pitchers have had longer and more illustrious careers than me, I still felt emotionally connected to both of them while I read their stories. I’m currently experiencing the monotonous early days of rehabilitation that they describe in meticulous detail: the light range of motion exercises, using one pound dumbbells to raise and lower my wrist. I know I will eventually get back to lifting heavier weights and throwing a baseball again — but right now that seems like it will take an eternity.

What’s more difficult is knowing my teammates are playing while I lose a year because of my surgery. It shouldn’t be this way; and Passan agrees. All we do as pitchers is throw a ball. We build a career, our lives, around a rolled up piece of yarn with leather and stitches surrounding it. This game is everything to its players, but baseball as an industry, in my view, the game has failed to its part in keeping its players, amateur and professional, healthy.

For the last 75 years, pitchers have been getting hurt. Baseball has been asking the same questions as to why, but without doing enough to find the answers, Passan says. Pitchers get hurt, but someone is always there to replace him. Velocity is at an all-time high and it’s exciting, so there’s no incentive for Major League Baseball to curb it. Doctors are certain that high velocity is stressful on the UCL, but if it gets a pitcher drafted and puts 40,000 fans in the seats every night, nothing will change.

As long as we’re throwing as hard as we can for nearly 140 days in the minor leagues or 160 days  in the major leagues, guys are going to get hurt. That will never stop. There will continue to be pitchers who will never spend a day on the disabled list because they were given a special gift to throw a baseball flawlessly. But for the rest of us, something will have to change.

At the highest level of the game, MLB needs to expand upon its program it started a couple of years ago that collects medical data across every level of every organization to analyze trends. They need to assemble as many exercise physiologists and physicians as possible to educate MLB on the stresses the UCL and body as a whole endure during the pitching delivery.

Maybe more importantly, MLB needs to have a more symbiotic relationship with youth baseball. Young pitchers have become victims of a multi-million dollar travel baseball industry that is fully funded by their ill-informed, ultra-competitive parents and the fallacy that if kids aren’t playing baseball all the time they are going to be passed up by their peers who are doing just that.

Passan paints a frightening picture of amateur travel baseball in which for-profit companies do hundreds of showcases around the country  all year. If the MLB could curtail the amount of games, showcases, innings, and pitches our kids are enduring, maybe when those kids become professionals their bodies will be able to survive.

Passan’s “The Arm” allowed me to realize exactly what I’m going through. It showed me there is a lot more to just the operation I had. That there are other people besides myself that are wondering why I’m hurt and why countless others are constantly getting hurt, too.

At the highest level, baseball is a business and baseball fans are its number one priority. What I think “The Arm” can do is  cause enough of a stir within the baseball fan base that it causes a movement. A movement that says enough and that, baseball listens.

 

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Jimmy Reed, a 2013 graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, was a four-year pitcher for the Terrapins. He was drafted and signed by the St. Louis Cardinals out of college. He is a regular contributor to the Povich Center website.

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