Endangered Species?

There are 17 names on the bulletin board in Jason Steere's office. Those 17 are players who regularly report each day to the minor league training room at Dodgertown to take part in another rehabilitation session. Steere, who is in his second year as the orgainzation's physical therapist, is the man in charge of putting through the program which has been designed for each individual by Dr. Frank Jobe and his staff.

Of those 17 names, 14 are pitchers which gives you the idea that of the nine positions on the field, the one that involves throwing off a mound is the most precarious. Injuries to the arm, most particularly to the shoulder and elbow, are by far the subject of Steere's sessions. To futher illustrate, all three of the position players currently in the program also are recuperating from arm problems.

There are gurus out there who are searching for and often preaching about the perfect arm slot -- the one that would cause a pitcher to be able to throw a ball plateward in a manner that will deliver maximum results while keeping him out of harm's way at the same time. Like the lost continent of Atlantis, nobody's found it yet and it may be just as mythical considering the varied physical charactertics of the thousands for whom throwing a baseball is a way of making a living.

Yet because it can be such a profitable enterprise, it continues to be the subject of such research. Some of those after the ultimate answer may be dismissed as quacks but others are intelligent and knowledgeable. As John Smoltz, a man whose arm problems changed him from a renown starter to an equally successful releiver, "Some day they'll find it. Then it can be mastered and repeated so that everybody can do it."

Well, maybe, but in the meantime there are other programs at work. One involves preventive maintainance, avoiding breakdowns before they ever occur. Every player in the Dodger system, for example, is put on a series of exercises that Dr. Jobe has developed, drills that if peformed religiously and properly, can keep a player on the field. But once a pitcher is out there throwing a ball in the most unnatural manner than many pitches seem to require, then the injury may well be inevitable. A coach in the Dodger system once opined, "Every pitcher is going to have an arm injury sooner or later. The only question is how severe it wil be."

Any check of the record will show that arm problems have always been a major part of the game. The careers of the two very best, Sandy Koufax and and Don Drysdale were ended prematurely. Consider Ron Walden, Erik Sonberg and Dan Opperman, often referred to as first-round draft mistakes. Yet if you'll look it up, you'll see that each had exhibited considerable promise only to have that blighted by injuries.

The progress made in the medical profession to solve such dilemmas has been considerable so that today the success stories are many. Eric Gagne missed all of 1997 after an operation, yet look at that assortment of pitches he throws with no apparent ill effects now. Still, there's more to it than the physical recovery. There's the psychological effect, something that Steere admits, "is often the hardest part to overcome." For it can be mind-shattering to find that something you could do with almost ridiculuous ease might never be done in the same manner again. Which brings us to Hong-Chi Kuo.

Yes, sadly, Kuo's name is up on Steere's board again. This spring he was put on a program that was to have him throw two or three innings in a game every three days. He was sent to Columbus where all went well in a couple of outings. Then he began complaining that the pain had returned so he's here to try, try again. Or will he? Kuo's left elbow has been the subject of two major operations plus numerous other invasions and Steere admits, "He's had so much structural damage that I don't think he can throw 95 anymore without breaking down. But he can throw 90 and can be effective doing that. But he might never be completely pain-free so we're working with him. We'll have to see if he can accept that and is willing to do it."

It's the same sort of project going on with Jonathan Figueroa. The sizzle on his fast ball had diminished from about 94 to 89-90 after a bout of tendinitis. He's been banged around considerably while he was being tried in relief. Now, he's back at Columbus, learning to change speeds, hit spots, rely on finessing the batters rather than overpowering them. It's way to early to say for certain but some of his last starts have been very encouraging.

Not everybody can adapt to pitching in pain but some will grit and go on, sometimes unwisely. Rick Roberts was doing just that but at the same time was having success so he soldiered on. The inevitable breakdown followed by the operation on his shoulder. In his case, though, there had to be two such surgeries, one in May 2003 followed by another last August. Currently he's shut down, then will resume work with the hope that someday he can recapture some of the promise that had carried him up to the 40-man roster.

The most celebrated of Steere's current group of patients is Greg Miller, whose shoulder surgery, wasn't considered that severe since it involved remving a burser sac rather than slicing into tendons or ligaments, which require far more recovery time. A recent article in a Los Angeles paper sounded an alarm, saying that Greg had been scheduled for a May return to duty but had suffered numerous setbacks. However, Greg himself never felt May was a a realistic date for his return And Steere agrees, saying "Yes, there have been some ups and downs and he hasn't come along as fast as we hoped. But we're being very cautious here. He's such a good prospect, the last thing you want to do is hurry him too much. We had hoped that he'd be able to pitch at some time during the season. That might not happen but we have to prepare him for the years to come and he's moving along toward that."

Brian Pilkington is another very recognizable individual here. He had climbed from Vero Beach to Jacksonville in 2003 with some very promising efforts but he didn't get into any real action at all this spring before going down. In his case, ligaments and tendons in his shoulder had to be tightened, which was done in May. He isn't scheduled to even begin throwing for several months.

Orlando Rodriguez was on the 40-man this spring, performing impressively, in fact, after seeming to overcome the elbow woes that had plagued him in 2003. But he blew his arm out trying so Tommy John surgery was performed in April. He seems to be coming along well although its too soon for him to be throwing.

On the other hand, Alfredo Gonzalez is seeing action once more, starting with some assignments with the Gulf Coast entry which plays on a field adjacent to the rehab facilities so Steere can be on hand to monitor the results. Gonzalez is another who had moved through the system up to the top. He spent a week with the big club last July although he didn't get into a game. He had shoulder surgery in August and has obviously had no problems in his rehab since it usually takes about a year to get back after major surgery.

Overuse of a pitcher's arm is something all organizations try assiduously to avoid hence the pitch counts that prevail. Sometimes, though, a player comes into pro ball from an amateur team which had no such qualms about keeping him out there. That's what happened to Marshall Looney. Looney, a lefthander from a small town in Oregon, was by far the best pitcher on his team or in his area for that matter so his coach squeezed every inning out of him he could. The Dodgers got him in the sixth round of the 2002 draft and assigned him to the Gulf Coast entry where he pitched extremely well as an 0.42 ERA will attest.

However a stiff shoulder caused by all those high school innings kept him out of the playoffs and from the Instructional League that fall. Last summer he didn't pitch at all for, "We discovered one problem after another," Steere relates. Finally, an operation was dictated which occurred in August. He's come back as far as being able to throw bullpen sessions now so should be ready for mound duty in the Instructional camp or next spring, depending upon what the high command views as advisable.

Righthander Steve Langone had compiled impressive records as he rose to pitch for Jacksonville before he went out late last season. He had Tommy John surgery in September and was coming along well until recently when there was a setback, a not uncommon occurrence. He'll back off a bit, then start forward again.

In contrast to the others, Masao Kida's problem doesn't involve the arm but rather the back. Kida is the Japanese righthander who was in a serious car accident in the spring of 2003 only to battle his way to the big club. He re-signed as a minor league free agent over the winter before the aching back put him out. He 's ready now and pitching for Las Vegas.

Another with the scars to show that he's a TJ veteran is Steve Nelson, a righthander from Nova Scotia who had made considerable progress for South Georgia last year before his elbow went out. His operation was performed in October which means it will probably be next spring before he's back in a game. Then, there's Jason Olson, who was a hard-throwing righthander but who could serve like Kuo as a poster child for this endeavor. He's had two major operations, the last in September, so he last pitched in the middle of 2002.

Proving that arm maladies recognize no international boundary, Australian Liam O'Flaherty and Dominicans Arismendy Castillo and Chales Dasni are on hand. All three had the Tommy John cut and are progressing to the point that each can throw some bullpen, which is when the arm starts getting a test.

The position players here are outfielders with arm problems. Ryan Carter hit .313 for Ogden last year and had been expected to be a mainstay for Vero Beach. Instead he had his right shoulder cut so will miss this season as will Dominicans Yovanci Frias (Tommy John) and Francisco Ventura (shoulder).

Although it may seem like some are rehab lifers, there are graduations from this halfway house. Eric Stults is doing well at Columbus while Joakim Soria was recently sent to the Dominican and Edgar Lizarraga to his native Mexico to see service once more.

Outfielder Sam Steidl, a 12th-round draft pick from the University of Minnesota, arrived with a broken finger. That's healed so he's gone to Ogden to begin his pro career. Fifth-round choice Justin Raglani, an outfielder from George Washington U., had a broken bone in his hand repaired after signing, went home, then will arrive here shortly to begin his rehab.

So they come and they go in a never-ending procession. Some, quite frankly, won't ever be what they could have been. Still, the success stories are there and they become far more numerous as methods improve. They may never come up with that perfect pitching motion. Nonetheless, a number of these guys will do whatever it takes and will succeed.

Steere and his aides are here to guide them on the road to Wellville. Which is what makes them so invaluable.