DERRICK MAY: Father’s Day is on Sunday and the holiday of course makes us think about our dad, Da
You’re under the brilliant lights on a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles. There’s not a cloud in the sky, yet your personal overcast surrounds you. You’re indoors and yet the Astrodome is 1500 miles away. There’s no pregame jitters; just the most important day of your life as what’s left of your baseball career depends on the immediate performance of those all around you.
The very small crowd hovers above your body and then it begins.
The main man on the chessboard is not Bobby Murcer in Center Field nor Chris Speier running down a sharp grounder over the middle off the bat of Bake McBride. It’s Dr. Frank Jobe, the Dodgers’ team physician, chief medicine man for your hated rival. It’s late May, 1975. Jobe’s not the father of modern baseball surgery at this point; he’s just a doctor who operated on a crafty lefthander, the full recovery of whom has yet to be determined. The reality of the circumstances beans you with scary questions you’re not ready nor in any condition to answer. Logic and proportion gets tossed to the side as the anesthesiologist prepares to send your mind to the showers.
The White Knight has you talking backwards as he prepares to cut into your precious, gifted right arm. 100…99…98…in a few moments, you’ll no longer be that young phenom, the wunderkind with the 100-MPH gas, the rookie badass who earned that missing gold cup on his baseball card that only you know belongs there.
Soon you’ll be the oft-injured hurler...96…95…94…as you hazily speculate if you’ll make it to one, your eyelids slowly close and you take an extended timeout from consciousness, into a wonderland that very possibly does not include a major league pitching mound…..
* * * * * *
Sometimes you ask yourself what’s the greater thrill in Baseball – that moment you witness a long, deep flyball pass through the sky approaching the fence, or the actual touching ground on the other side? The anticipation versus the realization. Everybody digs the long ball. The fans in the stands, friends and lovers, parents and children, embracing as it leaves the field of play. You felt that way last year when you jacked one out against Larry Demery in front of the home crowd at Candlestick. You don’t see many hugs after a 6-4-3 or a bloop single. There’s nothing as poetic and true in the game as the 4-base hit, nothing as picturesque, either. An amazing site to behold.
Except when you’re standing on the mound and you’re watching your 96 MPH heater travel 400 feet into the waving arms of the St. Louis Cardinals fans in right field. You shake your head as the great Ron Fairly takes his professional trot around the bases.
This was the fourth time in your first six starts of the 1975 season you watched this episode. The year before, you were 11th in the league in Homers per nine – gave up only 13 dingers in 215 innings. Now it’s already four in 21. To be honest, it wasn’t a major red flag – you made a mistake and Fairly, one of the most underrated hitters you ever faced (guy knew the strike zone as well as any batter in the league) made the most of it. Your manager Wes Westrum paces slowly out to the mound. The score is now 6-3 in the 3rd inning– your day is done.
No one in the Giants organization this year expects the team to compete for the post-season. The Dodgers are coming off an unlikely besting of the Cincinnati Reds for the division title in ‘74. Odds are the two of them will fight it out between themselves once again. The ballclub’s financial situation is in disarray. The last great link to Giants powerhouse teams of the 60’s was traded to the New York Yankees. Before the season began, the team led their best-efforts promotional campaign by touting its speed and power in the outfield – Murcer, Garry Maddox & Gary Matthews. “The 3M Company” is what they called them. The pitching staff is mostly a bunch of youngsters like yourself – fellow second-year man Ed Halicki, slightly older Mike Caldwell; new rookie phenom Count Montefusco and spring training surprise southpaw Pete Falcone. You and Falcone become fast friends in Phoenix over spring training. Italian food and guitar jamming are among your mutual interests. Soon “Petey” becomes your primary dinner buddy on road trips. Official media guides in February praised the fact that you won more games as a rookie Giants pitcher than anyone in 20 years and more strikeouts since “early in the century.” Others said you were probably the best young righthander in the league, who “could be the Giant ace of the future.” In addition to being 11th in the league in HR/9, you tied for 7th in Hits/9 and 4th in K/9. In many ways, you’re no longer seen as a luxury. You’re one of the team leaders. They’re depending on you.
And here you are in the first 10 days of May, the team has already traded Maddox to the Phillies, installed Von Joshua in center, and you sit at 1-4 with a double-digit ERA.
Something’s wrong, but it’s early yet. Your manager, a former catcher, wants to see if he can identify the problem and he has you throw the 8th inning of a blowout THE VERY NEXT DAY against the Cardinals. You give up a run on two hits, walking one. The opposing pitcher John Curtis bunts off you with an 8-0 lead in presumably their final frame, but whatever. Not a great relief outing, but nothing seriously alarming jumps out at you.
You wake up in your bed after an eight-day road trip on Friday, May 16th. Your arm does NOT.
Something alarming jumps out at you.
Your right elbow is locked, like LOCKED locked. No mobility. Maybe you slept on it wrong? After a few moments, you know it's not that. You wiggle your fingers, they’re fine. Elbow still locked. After waving it slightly about, your right arm now sits in a complete, unmovable right angle.
You know you’ve got a problem.
You get to Candlestick Park, walk swiftly into the clubhouse and track down Ozzie Virgil, the friendly bullpen coach.
“Something’s wrong, Oz,” you tell him. He senses your deep concern.
“Hey Johnny,” he reassures you, rubbing your shoulder, “Let’s go throw in the outfield. Let’s go play catch together.” Oz walks you out of the clubhouse, through the tunnel and onto the field from the dugout. You both jog toward the warning track. You grip the baseball but you’re afraid to throw it. You take your time as Oz waits patiently. It’s like you’re stalling.
“Johnny, don’t worry,” he says quietly, “Maybe it's muscle tightening. Let's work it out. Just toss it over.”
You’re always the optimist; you’re always the bright, smiling Johnny D. That’s what has you wrapped with anixety. It’s not paranoia. You just know what awaits you.
Finally, you toss the baseball, a dribbler 15 feet awkwardly to Ozzie’s left side. That was supposed to be a soft liner. From a big-league pitcher.
Your elbow locks. You cry out in pain and profanity. Oz walks over quickly.
“Can’t lift it,” you say a couple times, worried sick. “Just can’t lift it.”
“Ok ok ok, Johnny,” Oz replies calmly, “Let’s get you back inside.”
Oz tenderly leads you to the dugout and as you step down toward the tunnel, you turn back one more time, stealing a glance at the pitching mound. You know why, but you’re not ready to admit the reason to yourself. Sure, the ice that Al “Hump” Wylder, your team’s trainer, places on your arm in addition to some basic massage therapy alleviates the momentary pain, but the reason throbs in your head. Especially as Dr. Campbell, the ballclub’s specialist who hurries over from his office, checks out your elbow, considers the initial symptoms, then turns to the trainer as if you’re not even there and says the next-step phrase a pitcher never wants to hear.
“We need to take x-rays, Hump.”
As you drive over to Dr. Campbell’s office at Stanford University Medical Center, all the soothing sounds of country rock from the car radio can’t keep your nerves in check. You just keep thinking, “This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.” You hate it when your instincts know what they’re talking about. X-rays. Tests. Tests. X-rays. Never a good thing when the doctor swallows before delivering the news in his office.
Multiple bone chips in the back of your elbow.
The bone on the ulna (the “funny bone”) cracked in half.
Your Ulnar Collateral Ligament – your UCL - snapped at the elbow. SNAPPED. Dr. Campbell immediately reaches for the phone.
“We got one of our guys here that needs your help,” he states into his office speaker during an impromptu conference call with two other specialists.
“Send him down,” replies one of the men on the other side.
“Thanks, Frank,” Dr. Campbell says as he hangs up, turning to you like a father reluctantly sending his son off to war.
“That was Dr. Frank Jobe. He’s in Los Angeles. He’s the surgeon who worked on Tommy John.”
“Oh, God, is it that bad,” you gulp.
“We don’t know,” Dr. Campbell replies. He knows.
So do you.
* * * * * * *
One of the lonelier cab rides of your life. You’re uncomfortable and distracted and you’re not even driving. The pinky and ring finger on your right hand are tucked into your palm. The nerve has expanded almost 1/3 more than its normal size. You’re closer than you realize to being crippled. Even your thoughts about your favorite bands go negative. You hear a new song from a legendary rock group on the cab radio, a sweet ballad, very trendy for the time period. You think it’s sad that this amazing band, who authored so many hard-charging, fantastic tunes during your high school years, is now throwing this soft slop at the radio. You wonder what happened to their fastball.
You reach Dr. Jobe’s office. By yourself. No one is around to help you through this. You’re in the midst of a divorce. The team didn’t send anyone with you. Your parents are still in San Diego. Why didn’t you tell Mom? Because this shit is going so fast, you’re 23 and not thinking straight. Mom should be here with you. Someone should be here with you.
Dr. Jobe takes additional x-rays, additional tests. Soon you’re standing in another surgeon’s office, with two men in lab coats who wish they could smile at you, but don’t want to give the impression that there’s an easy way out of this. Dr. Kerlan is the other physician in the room. He looks down at the x-rays before speaking. He’s buying time, as people do when seeking just the right manner to say something devastating. Enough with the damn pauses, you yell in your mind.
“How bad is it,” you ask just to get the man to open his mouth.
“Have a seat, John,” Dr. Jobe says. Not Johnny. Not Johnny D.
“This is a new procedure,” Dr. Kerlan says, “We don’t know if it’s gonna fix you.”
"At this stage, we're not sure if you need FULL UCL repair surgery," Dr. Jobe says next, "But since the ligament appears to be intact, we might have to staple it to your elbow and you'll probably lose about five degrees range of motion."
“Do you have a job,” Dr. Kerlan interjects, very concerned about your answer.
“Yeah,” you reply earnestly, snapping back for a moment, fighting the inevitability of this conversation’s direction as best you can, “Starting pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.”
“No, John,” Dr. Jobe interjects, “That’s not what he means.” Dr. Kerlan repeats himself.
“Do you have a job? There’s only a 40% chance you’ll ever throw a baseball again.”
Dr. Jobe and Dr. Kerlan detail the nuances of the surgery. You don’t hear a damn thing for five minutes.
“You may never play baseball again” is the only phrase playing in your mind right now on an endless, somber loop.
All the joy within you dies, and you start to cry.
* * * * * *
Two days later, you’re driving over to Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles. “It all ends here,” you think, “All that work, the high school years in bed by nine, missing out on the surf parties and bonfires, the dedication, years of rooming houses in Great Falls, Montana, riding through parts of Illinois on surplus Greyhound buses, seemingly endless nights touring towns of the Pacific Coast League. Why would the Baseball gods give you such a rich taste of the dream saturated with life’s great flavor, then grab the plate from your hands, as if to say, ‘You’ve had enough?’” The nurse at reception receives your papers with a blank expression. Last week, you were digging into a juicy ribeye at a five-star steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, laughing with Count and Falcone. Soon you’re checked in, tucked in, fiddling with the adjustable mattress, watching Mike Douglas on the smallish TV in the corner of the room, eating jello. You begin compiling a front four of promising pitchers recently felled by injury. Bill Parsons. Gary Gentry. Chuck Seelbach. Balor Moore. Parsons, AL rookie pitcher of the year in 1971 for the Brewers.Gentry – the Mets chose to keep him over Nolan Ryan. Chuck Seelbach was drafted before you in the first round by the Tigers in 1970, had an amazing year out of the pen in ’72. Guys who were supposed to be gamers at this stage of their career, barely hanging on at the fringes of the league, if not out of the game entirely. You remember Jim Maloney at the end of his injured line with the Giants organization in Phoenix few years back at age 31 and he had Hall of Fame stuff. Joining this rotation of “what could’ve been” goes through your mind as you spend the night in the hospital before the surgery.
The following morning, you slowly drift into the operating room on a gurney. The valium helps your anxiety, though now you’re just sort of this passive observer to the death of your youth more than cool with what’s happening. The starting lineup enters the arena. Three nurses. The anesthesiologist. Dr. Kerlan. Finally, Dr. Jobe. In some way, you’re impressed with the collection of top-shelf medical talent here to put you back together. It’s like an All-Star Game for doctors and you're Baseball’s version of Steve Austin, a man barely able to throw 10 feet. They have the technology, only you may never be better than you were before.
* * * * * *
As you awaken, for an instant you’re relieved that this was the ugliest, most vivid dream you’ve ever experienced. Your mind is still cloudy, but at least you’ll be driving to the ball park shortly, rocking the Led Zeppelin as you buzz across the Golden Gate Bridge. Facing Andy Messersmith, Randy Jones, Jack Billingham, head-to-head against some other team’s ace. Then you try to wipe sleep sand from your eyes and find that your arm is wrapped to your chest. Then you remember.
You’re on the disabled list.
Your right hand is wrapped under your left armpit by a slew of ace bandages. Bags of ice sit on your chest to cool down your heartbeat due to the stress of the operation. Terrible body chills. Nurses swaddling you in blankets. Everything iced down. Soon Dr. Jobe enters the room to check on you. He makes a joke about tying you up to keep you from beating his Dodgers, but you’re not in the mood for levity, good-natured as it was.
“How’d it go,” you ask him wearily. Dr. Jobe gives you the play-by-play.
They had to re-tunnel the nerve from the funny bone, he says. Drilled a hole in the elbow and re-attached the nerve and bone grafted it shut so it would slide. The ligament was cleaned and re-attached to the ulna-elbow area, resulting in the five degree range of motion loss he mentioned in his office earlier. Dr. Jobe goes on and on, as your head turns to gaze out the window and his words melt into verbal white noise.
You spend close to a week in that cold, bland hospital room. Private. Isolated. Going through this alone. The nurses took good care of you. Fed you dinners, cut up your steak because you couldn’t move your arm. Brought you wine. Mom and Dad still have no idea what you’re going through. You need to tell them.
* * * * * *
You return to see Dr. Campbell in San Francisco, who is extremely impressed with Dr. Jobe’s work and signs off on your regiment. In your mind, you’re thinking, "How will you come back from this?" You’re instructed to remain with club and rehab your elbow at the ballpark. This isn’t 1988. There will be no rehab starts at Phoenix. Everything will be done at the team level. You stay with the ballclub during homestands, you’re in uniform, but you’re distracting your mind, almost preparing for the future with that fancy offseason job you have with Bank of America making $45K handling airline accounts for the company’s credit card division that will soon be renamed VISA. The team is actually a couple games over .500. The pitching staff is relatively stable. Count Montefusco is the new wunderkind, already considered a Cy Young candidate. Your friends on the ballclub aren’t treating you like a guest, but you sure feel like one. You start believing the most depressing part about getting injured is not that you let your teammates down, but that they don’t need you anymore. This is where the doubt starts kicking optimism’s ass.
The ballclub goes on a 12-game road trip and leaves you behind. B of A asks you to go visit the Pacific Southwest Airlines Headquarters down in San Diego, but you really use this work trip as an excuse to do what you should have done right after surgery.
You go home.
Mom’s waiting for you on the front porch as you drive up with your brother Fred. She doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t hug you because she knows your arm is a mess, simply smiles as she reaches up for your head and gives you a kiss on your cheek, her expression a mix of affection, reassurance and determination to make her son whole again. You appreciate her love, half-hug her hello then excuse yourself to go inside and lie down because it’s late, you’re tired and you’re still not certain you’re ever going to see another inning on a major league mound.
As you face the ceiling that night, lying in the bed of your childhood, you receive a visitor. The ghost of brilliance past stops by, spends awhile by your side, calls attention to the many trophies on your shelf, the important baseballs on your teenage desk in the corner of the room, reminds you of your ability, your gift, comforts you then leaves you with this message. “Baseball isn’t your pastime. Working for Bank of America – that’s your pastime. Baseball is your life. 20 wins, 20 losses, 200 K’s, 200 walks, Cy Young, Cy Never, none of that matters. You’re not done yet, Johnny. Baseball is what you were meant to do. Your journey back to the game begins now. Take heed in Dr. Jobe’s words. Have faith in his direction. Everything will be ok.”
You rise in the morning to Mom’s hearty sausage and eggs, and as she catches you up on family gossip and the latest news about the neighbor’s kids, you hear the words, “You’re not done yet.” Later that day, at a business lunch with executives from PSA as the VP of marketing breaks down the promotional needs of the airline, you’re saying to yourself, “You’re not done yet.” Couple nights later, as you’re out for a beer with Fred and his buddies reminiscing about the quirks of girlfriends from seven years earlier, you sip your Coors while whispering in your mind, “You’re not done yet.” In two weeks time, as you’re ready to leave for the airport back to San Francisco, Mom kisses the same spot on your cheek, beaming with pride because she still has that maternal fastball that can make everything all right for her grown son and you step into the car confident with the knowledge that Stage One of your rehab is now complete.
* * * * * *
You arrive to an empty ballpark. Your teammates are in Atlanta splitting a four-game series, living their lives. You step out onto the field to resume yours. You remember what Dr. Jobe said.
“One day, you’re gonna have to pop the adhesions in your elbow and that is gonna make it feel like you hurt yourself again. In the meantime, I suggest you throw the ball against the wall, do not play catch with anyone.”
Even away three weeks, you missed the ballpark smell of residual hot dog smoke and stale beer. After taking in the vacant, silent view, you run. You run and you run and you run and you run. Up and down the first base line, across the infield, foul pole to foul pole. Back and forth that warning track. You run. You prepare your body for the fight of its life and your mind takes command of the mission. When your body feels it’s done, your mind shakes the head. “Nope. Keep going.” And you run some more. This is how you’re told to start every day for the rest of the summer.
You take a racquetball everywhere you go. Squeeze the two fingers you use to pitch and squeeze that racquetball completely, almost folding it in half. You wince slightly the first time. Gonna hurt for awhile. Hand squeezers, too. It all starts in the hand, up the wrist, through the forearm toward its destination, the elbow. DO NOT LIFT WEIGHTS. Pretty soon, by yourself, you start playing catch with the bullpen wall using a tennis ball.
* * * * * *
Ten days later, the Dodgers come to town. Walking around the cage during batting practice, your eyes meet Tommy John’s across the field. He nods, walks over and you both meet in the middle of the diamond. You swap Frank Jobe stories, recant the good doctor’s corny jokes to keep you at ease, his pleasant demeanor.
“How’s it going for you,” Tommy asks. He’s surprised to learn you’re already throwing. He took longer to heal than you. He had a big knot where his elbow was, a knot more than 1 ½ times raised above normal. They had to take the entire ligament out and replace it with a leg ligament and re-attach it to the elbow. You still had your ligament – big difference, but you both share the same journey.
Through every cool morning in empty Candlestick Park that June and July, you’re tossing a tennis ball by yourself against the bullpen wall. Soft toss after soft toss. The tedium tries to beat the process, but you believe in Dr. Jobe, and you work through it. July becomes August and the yellow Wilson becomes an official major league hardball. You know every bounce, every nook, every crevice in that wall like Carl Yastrzemski knows every carem off the Green Monster in Fenway. Soon the tosses become throws and your frowns become grins of confidence. You look down at your elbow and know it’s time. You run to the clubhouse and call your medicine man.
“Feeling pretty good,” you tell Dr. Jobe, “Think it’s time to pop ‘em.”
“When you pop the adhesions, you’re gonna see little pustules come up in your scar. And then that’s gonna tell us that you popped your adhesions loose, the internal stichings on the collateral ligament where we wrapped the elbow.”
Couple days later, right there in the bullpen, you pop the adhesions. Your screams of pain echo throughout the barren stands, and when it finally goes mute, you look up at the orange, empty seats and you want to hear cheers. You step off 60 feet from the wall. You pick up the baseball and make the most important pitch of your career, the invisible crowd roars with encouragement in your mind like a child in the backyard pretending it’s Game Seven as you whip that damn ball against the bullpen wall, grunting through your delivery. It makes a crackling sound that reverberates throughout the park. It’s the most exhilarating pain you ever felt. You see the result of your work and run to the clubhouse.
“Hey Hump,” you call over to your trainer with a beckon, “Come check this out.”
“You take care of business,” Hump asks, with some ice and an ace bandage at the ready.
“Just c’mon,” you wave excitedly as you leave the clubhouse.
You jog over to the bullpen wall like a proud son presenting gold-star schoolwork to his father as Hump walks slowly behind. Hump approaches the wall and touches the crack in the concrete, the crack you made with your broken pitching arm, then offers you a sly grin.
You found The Heater right where it was all along.
* * * * * *
A week later, September 15th, you’re driving to the ballpark. Today might be the day. The song from that washed up band you love so much comes on the radio. You hear it differently now. You identify with them now. You both had to move heaven and earth to find your way back. The cool, detached DJ says the band is Jefferson Starship, “but to me they’ll always be The Airplane.” You know that life happens. Jefferson Airplane went through their own reconstructive surgery, having to replace musical tendons and arteries in their group. They’re not rocking out psychedelic tunes but using mellifluous curveballs and sliders to be relevant again. They fought through their troubles and by revamping their sound they returned to the Top Ten of the music charts for the first time in eight years. Their fastball is long gone, but they're still winning fans over. The ballad is like the knuckleball of rock n roll.
They’ll always be The Airplane to you, too, but now you know their voyage.
You're in the top of the 5th inning. There’s less than 1000 fans in the park. The Braves lead 5-0 and looking to blow this one out. Charlie Williams just intentionally walks Dave May to load the bases and the opposing pitcher Jamie Easterly steps to the plate. An error at 2nd brings in another run. Dusty Baker smacks a double to left-center, plating Vic Correll and Dave May. Wes Westrum needs to stop the blood-gushing as the score is now 8-0. Your pitching coach Don McMahon sends the sign to Ozzie Virgil to get another right-hander up in the pen. Fast. You hear the loveliest request in the past four months.
“Hey Johnny,” Ozzie calls over to you with a laugh, ”Wanna play catch?” You wanna burst with glee.
“Nope,” you shake your head, stepping off the bullpen bench in right field, toeing the rubber as you let that fastball loose.
Two batters later, you see Westrum walk to the mound. He taps his right arm and calls for the first day of the rest of your career.
Your journey is complete as the PA announcer tells the fans you’re back.
Your walk across the first base line is slow and deliberate. You want to savor the moment, as it took every fiber of your being to make it through this time in your life. Sure, there’s only 900 people in the stands, but you would do this in front of one person and you did for four months. The 20 wins would never come. You would never get the chance to propel your team into the post-season. You would never get a ring. And none of this matters. The ghost of brilliance past only promised you the strength to work through the process of reliving the dream of doing the thing you were always meant to do.
For all the young pitchers sitting in a doctor’s office right now, in 2014,staring at the ceiling in your bedroom or under a surgeon’s bright lights, wondering what’s next for your sore shoulder, your chipped elbow, your torn rotator cuff, a lot of work is ahead of you, not gonna deny that. Even with the advances of modern medicine and surgery, you will still need to move heaven and earth, and yet there are still no guarantees. But sometimes, faith in yourself may be the difference between triumphantly walking back under the lights before a crowd of thousands just like that September afternoon in 1975 or taking yourself out of the game and calling it a day.
If only you believe like I believe.
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DERRICK MAY: Father’s Day is on Sunday and the holiday of course makes us think about our dad, Da
You’re under the brilliant lights on a gorgeous Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles.
I really love the sensation of coming across a song I haven't heard in decades, as it unlocks thi
The phone rang in my kitchen.