Pestano Taking it One Step at a Time

Former Cal State Fullerton baseball player hopes path to recovery leads to his eventual success as a pro

It took one pitch.

A 1-2 slider, to be exact.

It was the pitch that did more than strike out USC's Cyle Hankerd in the 9th inning on May 10.

The pitch behind a torn ligament that would prevent Cal State Fullerton sidearmer Vinnie Pestano from playing the final season of his college career in 2007.

It was a pitch that Pestano remembers quite vividly.

"I didn't want to believe what was happening because when you feel a pop in your elbow, you know immediately that something's not right," the 21-year-old criminal justice major said. "I had tingling and numbness in my hand, but shook it off and got the ball back."

He said after Hankerd struck out, the crowd was going and so was his adrenaline. Pestano attempted one more slider against the next hitter, but by the time he got the ball back, he felt a throbbing in his already-swollen right arm.

"I called the trainers out there and that was it," Pestano said.

For the remainder of the season, although Pestano was inactive, he served as an emotional leader on the team, which was an important role, Head Coach George Horton said.

He accepted that role and tried to become more of a team leader.

But not being able to help lead his team advance to the College World Series was tough for him, Pestano said.

"It was excruciating," Pestano said of having to watch his team from the dugout. "It hurt worse watching than it did throwing."

After having doctors classify it as nothing more than a strain, Pestano wasn't convinced.

"I knew it was a lot worse," Pestano said. "I've strained muscles before, but I've never torn ligaments. It's something I've never experienced before."

After doctors finally discovered there was indeed a tear, Pestano met with Los Angeles Angels team physician Dr. Lewis Yocum.

On July 21, Yocum performed the surgery on Pestano. The surgery is called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction or UCL.

The surgery is also called Tommy John surgery, named after former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, who was the first professional athlete to successfully undergo the operation 32 years ago.

Full rehabilitation from the surgery takes approximately a year for pitchers. It usually takes about another year before they return to full form.

Pestano's father, Bill Pestano, said he was more nervous about the operation than his son was.

"It was definitely difficult," Bill said. "You never want to see your son get injured."

Yocum replaced the damaged ligament with a ligament from Pestano's left hamstring.

"There's an 80-20 chance of recovery, but I would've done it if it was 20-80," Pestano said. "My lifeline is my arm and I've never wanted to do anything else in my life except for play baseball."

Pestano is currently in rehab strengthening the muscles around the ligament, as well as his forearm and shoulder.

CSUF team photographer Matt Brown, who is documenting Pestano's road to recovery with photographs, described Pestano as "very much of a bulldog."

"When you actually see it day in and day out, it's pretty impressive how dedicated he is to getting himself back," Brown said.

The dedication to baseball that Pestano has displayed since he entered the game 17 years ago certainly paid off when his name was called by the Cleveland Indians in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft in Round 20 on June 7.

He eventually signed a contract with Cleveland on Aug. 17 after discussing it with his family and coaches.

"It was awesome," Pestano said. "The entire summer with the surgery, everything was uncertain with the draft. Who knows what would've happened if I didn't get hurt? A lot of guys were telling me top five rounds. That's just what I was being told."

Pestano's mother, Anne, said she is glad her son will be playing in the big leagues but also finds it is sad that he'll be leaving for training camp in a short period of time.

"I would really love to have him closer to home, but he seems very happy with it," Anne said. "He's very excited about it. If he's excited about it, I am, too."

His father, Bill said a lot of the dedication Pestano possesses came from the time he spent as a bat boy for CSUF when he was in his early teens.

"Most bat boys will show up for the game and retrieve bats and stuff," Bill said. "Vinnie was there for every single practice and stayed the entire eight hours during the practice session."

Bill said when Pestano pitched a no-hitter at 14 years old at a Pony League game in front of George Horton, he knew he had the ability to be something special.

"He knew that it was a special time to be playing in front of somebody that he respected so much," Bill said.

Aside from his dedication to the game, Pestano said what separates him from other pitchers is his mental game.

"For me it's all about mentality," the 6-foot, 200 pound closer said. "When I go on the mound, I am 6-foot-6. I do throw 95 even though I'm more 90 miles per hour."

For Pestano, it was an honor to play in the rich baseball environment at CSUF, he said.

As he continues on the road to recovery from Tommy John surgery while simultaneously making the leap from college ball to the pros, Pestano said that it would be tough to leave.

"It's a new team, new guys, it's a different mindset," he said. "But I'm always going to have this. I'm always going to have the alumni game to come back to every year."

Although he hopes one day to make his name a household name and have little kids going to baseball games wearing his jersey, he said he will always have a family at CSUF.

"I love the guys that I play with," Pestano said. "I got a bunch of friends and I wouldn't trade my time here with those guys and my relationships with them for anything."