Teresa Oberg admits now she wondered about her son's future in the game of baseball. Was it possible his psoriatic arthritis would keep him from taking the mound again? Was this the end of his dream to someday pitch in the major leagues?
"I asked him once what he hoped to have happen when he finally got better," Teresa Oberg said. "He said, ‘I just want to walk.' My thinking was he would never play baseball again, and his answer was, ‘I just want to walk normal.' He was in more pain than we ever knew."
Connecticut's redshirt junior experienced his first arthritic symptoms in June that year. By the time the fall semester started up at UConn, Oberg was using that cane in the morning. And when he tried to walk from his car to class, he found his daily campus journeys had to be interrupted for rest stops.
Needless to say, this was not a typical experience for a 20-year-old college student, especially an athlete and right-handed pitcher with such a promising future.
"It was heart wrenching; really heart wrenching," Scott's father, Royd Oberg, said.
In reality, it was just the first half of a two-part medical test of Oberg's resolve and stamina. When doctors found the proper medications to treat Oberg's psoriatic arthritis, he climbed back on the mound and began his comeback trail in an effort to rejoin the Huskies for the 2011 season.
"I was so proud of him overcoming [the arthritis] and we were trying to get him ready for the Corpus Christi [College Classic in late Feb.]," UConn coach Jim Penders said. "We went over to Star Hill [Athletic Center] in Tolland for a scrimmage. He was lights out. Throwing great. He threw about 15 or 20 pitches and on the last pitch he felt something in his elbow go.
"He was throwing 90 or 91 [mph] and he looked like he was 100 percent. He had his breaking ball and we were excited about it. Then, he just felt something." That intrasquad scrimmage was the first time Oberg had thrown live to hitters since the arthritis developed. He had thrown a few bullpen outings, but this was exciting for him.
Then he felt the tightness.
And then he heard the words "Tommy John surgery." His 2011 season was over.
"I never felt a pop," Oberg said. "Other guys have felt pops and tingling, losing feeling in the fingers. I didn't actually feel that, but it felt really tight. I kind of knew something was wrong and then they got the MRI and they said it was a pretty clear tear of the ligament. It snapped in half."
The Big East Conference doesn't hand out a Comeback Player of the Year award. If there were such a thing, Oberg would be a leading candidate. The junior from Tewksbury, Mass., was named to the All-Big East first team Tuesday night at opening ceremonies for the 2012 Big East championship tournament in Clearwater, Fla.
After taking all of 2011 off after his Tommy John surgery, Oberg was UConn's closer this season and he was the only relief pitcher in the Big East who earned first-team recognition. As the Huskies open tournament play against USF Wednesday at 8 p.m., Oberg has a 5-0 record and 1.09 earned run average in 33 innings pitched. He also has seven saves and has struck out 32.
After a shaky start to the season, Oberg has slammed the door shut on UConn's opponents. He does it quickly and efficiently. His fastball has been clocked between 92 and 94 – even better than before the Tommy John surgery.
In his first outing since 2010, against Ohio State on Feb. 19, Oberg walked four and allowed three runs over 0.2 innings. Since then he has allowed just one earned run. In Big East games, his 0.33 ERA over 27.1 innings is the best in the conference.
In three seasons at UConn, Oberg has a 14-2 record with nine saves. He pitched 46.1 innings in 2010 when his ERA was 1.94. But a lot happened between that season and this season.
"You're not supposed to have favorites but it's hard not to have a favorite when you hand him the ball and only good things happen," Penders said. "That's been the case since his freshman year. He just keeps his mouth shut and works his rear end off."
Penders says after that one blip against Ohio State, Oberg "was Scott again." Dr. Michael Joyce of Glastonbury, an orthopedic consultant and part of UConn's sports medicine department, performed the Tommy John surgery on April 1, 2011. Oberg said the date was pushed back a bit because Dr. Joyce was traveling with the UConn men's basketball team as the Huskies won the 2011 NCAA championship.
Tommy John surgery is so common now, pitchers are not as alarmed as they once were. Fans may still view it as a career-ending injury, but Oberg knew from being around others that it didn't have to be that way if he attacked the rehab process the right way.
"I think that was the reaction I got from a lot of people," Oberg said. "Dr. Joyce did an awesome job and he's done plenty of other guys' arms. I was able to talk to guys like Greg Nappo and Bob Van Woert, some of the older guys who had gone through the same process. It was good to rely on them if I had a setback."
The reaction now when Oberg walks in from the bullpen is one of supreme confidence. It's obvious he has that quality internally. The UConn fans, his teammates, his parents and other parents believe too.
|Oberg likes to work fast (UConn Athletic Communications)|
Penders says the other moms love Oberg because of his rosy cheeks that make him look like Santa Claus. When he comes in to close out a game, the chants of "C'mon Scotty" can be heard all around J.O. Christian Field.
"My hands start shaking and my stomach is tight," Royd Oberg says when asked how he feels watching his son walk to the mound. "But [UConn] has a wonderful program. The parents are special and the coaches are special.
"The medical team here, the doctors, the trainer and his teammates – thank God they were all here for him and they helped him through it. My heart kind of fell when he got hurt. We had just been given the medication for his arthritis and he was starting to move around again. He was starting to throw again. And all of a sudden, in practice, he throws out his elbow. Give the kid a break. I felt bad for him."
If Oberg ever felt bad for himself, he didn't let on to anyone. Penders says UConn has never had a pitcher come back as "seamlessly as he has. He has come back without any confidence issues."
Oberg closed out the regular season strong, picking up a save for David Fischer on May 17 in a 2-1 win over Notre Dame. Two days later he pitched two innings of hitless ball to help the Huskies stop the Irish 4-0.
"Since my freshman year here he has been the go-to guy for us," Fischer said. "Last year he hurt his elbow and obviously he has come back and done the same stuff that he's done his freshman and sophomore year. He is the one guy I know that when it gets to him, it's almost automatic."
There's a running joke on the UConn baseball team that Scott Oberg is the "old man" of the Huskies. It's not just the arthritis. Penders says Oberg gets up earlier than any other player on the road. He'll be at breakfast waiting for everyone – with his coffee and three newspapers.
Oberg doesn't have a smartphone. He gets his news the old-fashioned way. After moving to the Boston area from his birthplace near Dallas, Texas, Oberg became a devoted reader of the Boston Globe and Lowell Sun. At UConn, he will grab the campus paper, the New York Times and maybe the Hartford Courant.
"I read everything," he says. "That's the way it was around my house. I'm not glued to my phone like the rest of the guys."
|Teresa, Scott and Royd Oberg (KEN DAVIS PHOTO)|
Teresa Oberg, a teacher's aide in Tewksbury, set the example by reading everything. The doctors were still struggling with a diagnosis for Scott's foot and leg pain when she read an article about golfer Phil Mickelson's struggle with psoriatic arthritis. Mickelson was nearly crippled by the rare disease, which affects about 1 out of 100 people, in the summer of 2010.
"I think [Mickelson] had just come back on the tour," Teresa said. "It just was too eerily like the symptoms Scott had. Everybody thought it was orthopedic at first. It was just one foot and then it went to other foot. One of the symptoms is that it mirrors that way. It's a very strange disease and they don't know what causes the onset. Why it occurs in some people, and not others, is still a mystery to doctors. They just don't know."
Scott's parents still get choked up when they discuss what he went through – before the Tommy John surgery. They laugh at the "old man" reference, even though they know he did feel almost elderly for a period of time.
What it boils down to is a strong case of maturity that guides Scott Oberg through everything he does. Penders' favorite example of that is from Dec. 17, 2010. That's the day Walt Dropo, UConn's legendary and famous three-sport star, passed away. It was winter break at UConn and Oberg was still struggling to find the right medication for his arthritis.
"I was going to the wake to represent [UConn baseball]," Penders said. "Scott calls me from his home, and says, ‘Coach, did you see Mr. Dropo passed away? Is it OK with you if I go represent our team?' Without me asking, or without me sending out an e-mail; he probably read it in the paper.
"What 20-year-old kid is doing that? He just thought it was the right thing to do. He was thinking about someone else. And it was natural."
Scouts have been watching Oberg and Penders knows there is a good chance his closer won't be back at UConn next season.
"He has a chance to play pro ball," Penders said. "Some teams may be worried about his medical situation, but they shouldn't be. If anything it enhances his status. I know grown-ups enjoy him more because of what he has been through."
Oberg admits he is excited, but not focusing on the MLB first-year player draft, which will be held June 4-6. He sees the radar guns aimed at him but won't think about what's next until he sees what happens in the draft.
"Playing in the major leagues is the only thing I've ever wanted to do since I first picked up a baseball back in T-ball in Texas when I was 4," he said.
Teresa and Royd are excited too.
"But we don't want to put any pressure on him right now," Teresa said. "He's trying to focus on the team."
And Scott will do that, until the UConn season ends – whenever that might. The more appearances he makes, the better things will be for the Huskies during the postseason.
And when he takes the mound during the Big East tournament, he will wear his UConn hat with that old Irish blessing written out on the underside of the cap's bill.
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
There's nothing phony or hypocritical about that gesture. Oberg feels blessed every time he walks to the mound. For someone who thought he may never walk again, that's a pretty special thing.
"It's kind of a reminder of what I've been through and what I've had to overcome," he said. "Of course, I've got my family, my friends and my teammates to support me. And that has been the biggest thing."