Writer's Note: Chase Parham, a left-handed high school pitcher, underwent Tommy John surgery on August 1, 2001. The first part of the two-part series on the process. Part one gives the basics of the surgery, while part two discusses the four Ole Miss pitchers that have lived the procedure.
He still remembers the pitch. He also remembers the sound and the feeling.
Brett Bukvich has thrown an uncountable number of baseballs in his life, but there is one particular pitch that he recalled instantly almost without thinking about it.
"When it happened I was in Oklahoma at the Sunbelt Tournament," Bukvich said. "It actually happened against (Zack) Cozart's team. It was a curve ball and as soon as I let go, there was a pop and my arm went numb. The next pitch I couldn't throw 30 feet."
The "it" was a ligament tear in the left-hander's throwing elbow just before his senior year of high school, and the story mirrors that of many other pitchers that have experienced the same fate. Bukvich is one of four Ole Miss hurlers that have been through Tommy John surgery. The actual operation went 100 percent smoothly for all of them, while each player's rehab was successful albeit on different timetables.
Will Kline and Bukvich are both long removed from the surgery and the intense rehabilitation, while Justin Cryer and Phillip Irwin are competing for Ole Miss but still expect to see improvements as the months wear on.
"It was almost five years ago (July 18, 2002), but I am doing outstanding. The arm is great," Kline said.
Kline has no doubt recovered with excellent results, but Cryer assesses where he is in the process after having the reconstruction in October 2005.
"It is supposed to take 18 to 24 months to get completely comfortable so I am not there yet," Cryer, who spent 15 months between throwing to a batter, said. "I am 100 percent when it comes to strength. My fastball and velocity are back or better, but my offspeed stuff feels out of rhythm still."
Irwin underwent the UCL reconstruction two months after Cryer and has also been effective this season. The freshman is currently not on the 25-man roster due to unrelated shoulder tendinitis, but he has drawn a start and appeared on several occasions for Ole Miss.
Cryer and Irwin differ from the others in that their rehab wasn't picture perfect. All exercises went smooth until one point in each's throwing program where they were put on the shelf.
"I had one setback that first spring where I took two weeks off because my nerves were inflamed. It was scary because they thought I might have to have it again. But I had full faith in the doctors and everything turned out good."
"I got to 120 feet and then it started hurting," Irwin said. "It ended up being a two-month setback where I couldn't throw. That was pretty rough."
Also different for the right-handed pitcher is that the ligament didn't tear before surgery. Irwin's arm just began hurting more and more until he couldn't throw any longer.
Warning signs before the ligament becomes severely injured are scarce, but pain or unfamiliar feelings are often ignored or misdiagnosed leading to the major surgery. Bone chips are present in the arm during a significant amount of cases. The bone chips to the ligament are like pieces of glass would be to a rubber band.
"It frayed, but I kept pitching," Bukvich said. "Then, it tore, and I realized I had bone chips in my elbow."
Cryer tells a similar story where the early form of injury didn't keep him from throwing.
"I threw summer ball and knew my arm was out of whack," Cryer said. "I got back here (Ole Miss) and threw a pitch. I can remember it was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life. The next day I tried to throw and it wouldn't go anywhere even with a crow hop."
Rehab is undoubtedly grueling, but the elbow can sustain some pressure during the process. Many high school athletes that undergo the surgery are more than just pitchers and sometimes more than baseball players.
Kline didn't let his 11 months of rehab completely halt his playing career.
"I was the quarterback in high school (Tupelo), but I punted also," Kline told. "So, I wrapped my arm in a big brace and punted the last four games of my senior year. Then, baseball rolled around in the spring, and I was still rehabbing. I designated hit during the entire year even though I couldn't play a position. The last game of the regular season, I pitched with just a fastball and a change-up. Then, I threw in the first round of the playoffs where I was probably 85-90 percent."
The four Ole Miss pitchers are the lucky and dedicated ones that talk of success and were committed to the extended recovery process. Some don't make it back for various reasons.
Although, the procedure isn't automatic, professional organizations are viewing the situation as a footnote in the biography rather than a serious setback to draft stocks.
The doctors are trusted to the point where the New York Yankees invested $3.5 million of guaranteed money in Jon Lieber when he was only five months post-operation during the 2002 offseason.
For those fortunate enough to experience success with the procedure, only nagging but constant annoyances still exist.
"Cold weather is tough to deal with," Cryer said. "Your first throw is like there are spider webs in your elbow. It is stiff and hurts. Also, I don't have much feeling back there." (pointing to his elbow)
Tommy John survivors have won 14 of Ole Miss' 33 victories this season and have eaten up 191.2 innings meaning that the Rebels are definitely stronger thanks to a few healed ligaments.
And a remarkable piece of medical innovation.
Examining Tommy John surgery, part 2
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