Last month, I stumbled across (and posted about) the Pitcher’s Duel blog, written by two college students / baseball fans, one a college pitcher at Bradley University named Andy Johnson who recently had Tommy John surgery. I thought the perspective of an aspiring professional ballplayer trying to come back from major injury was an interesting one (and one I’m not sure we get to read about very often), so I asked Andy if he’d be willing to do a Q&A for the site.
It’s long, so I’ve split it up into two parts. This is part one. (Part two tomorrow.) Huge thanks to Andy for taking the time to answer my long-winded, multi-part questions.
Before the injury that led to the surgery, had you experienced arm pain before? What does the typical soreness following a start feel like, and how did this pain compare? Did you know immediately that there might be something seriously wrong, or was it only because the pain kept coming back that you had a doctor take a look?
Before the injury, I really never had elbow pain before. It started in the fall of 2010 following my freshman year but I didn’t think it was anything to worry about. The pain started in my forearm and as the year went on, it crept into my elbow.
I actually am a back end of the bullpen guy. My sophomore season (2011), I usually would pitch the seventh and eighth inning in a winning ball game. I was never sore after those appearances actually. My arm would get super tight. I would wake up the following day and have to heat my arm up because it would be stuck at 90 degrees. That’s when I started to worry about the pain.
Growing up, I never had many issues with my arm. I would be able to bounce back on just a few days rest in high school and be able to throw seven innings easy. The pain was much worse than anything I experienced whether it be in college or prep.
I knew something was wrong when we were down in Florida playing in 95 degree weather. I would wear long sleeves, a fleece and a jacket so that by the time my inning came around, I’d be hot and not cramped. After the trip I told my athletic trainer and he was the first to say it was a UCL sprain.
What’s the attitude in college ball about injuries? We read lots of stories about major leaguers keeping injuries a secret– is there fear in college ball that you’ll lose your spot on the team if you seem like you’re complaining, or is there a culture of coming forward about any pain or discomfort right away so that it can be dealt with before it potentially becomes a bigger problem?
I think in any high-level competition sport, there are going to be guys keeping injuries a secret. I tried to hide mine as long as possible and eventually it led to my surgery. You often see players get injured after a rough patch hitting or a bad start. The weird part about mine was I had a 0.90 ERA and was having the best start to a season ever. I never worried about losing my spot because I had proven I can do the job if I’m healthy. As far as guys who maybe don’t have a spot locked down, I bet they can be a little shy about admitting an injury. Nobody at any level of baseball should ever want to ride pine. An injury forces players to do that and I think that’s why you see players sometimes hide the issue.
How does the training process work in college? This may be a silly question, because I’m just not very well informed, but is there a team trainer, or are the coaches trained at all in sports medicine? Are you immediately sent to a doctor, or are college coaches put in perhaps a difficult position of determining on their own what is normal pain or soreness and what could be a more serious problem?
At Bradley, we’re very fortunate because the provide great care for their athletes. We have four full-time coaches. We have a head coach (Elvis Dominguez), pitching coach (John Corbin), a hitting coach (Sean Lyons) and a volunteer assistant, who can vary year-to-year. Dustin Holley is the athletic trainer for the baseball team and he deals with every injury. He was the one who told me I had a UCL sprain and has guided me through my rehab process. Coach Corbin developed a throwing program and monitors that. We also have two full-time weight coaches who put together our workouts. After the Bradley physical therapist told me what my strengthening plan is, those coaches put together a workout to fit my need.
The coaches were put in a bit of a bind when my injury popped up. I was able to help the team win ball games and it’s tough to tell one of your pitchers he can’t play. I saw a doctor after spring break and he took an MRI which revealed no damage to the UCL. With time and rest I’d be able to be back on the field for the last third or fourth of the season and pitch in the postseason.
After not throwing for eight weeks and trying to rehab my elbow, the pain still lingered which is when we looked for another opinion. The second doctor said Tommy John was in my future and that’s when we saw the surgeon.
What was your emotional reaction to the injury? I imagine it’s awfully frustrating and feels like a tremendous loss of control over your ultimate destiny as a ballplayer — it’s one thing to have to deal with trying to maximize your physical gifts as a pitcher but to have an injury get in the way, and to not know how your body will recover must be difficult at times. Has the process made you feel differently about how much of ultimate athletic success is luck and good fortune as opposed to other factors?
This injury has been, by far, the most emotionally draining thing to ever happen to me. On TV it look so easy. Stephen Strasburg was back on a mound right after his year mark and many pitchers are back to 100 percent even before that. But what fans don’t see are the days when you can’t throw a ball 45 feet. Or the day it seems like the ball goes the completely wrong direction you want it to go.
My goal is to be a professional ballplayer and it has been since I was nine years old. Out of high school, I had some offers to play pro ball but I wasn’t ready to be on my own and that’s why I thought college was the best option.
The injury will give anyone doubts. One day you feel normal and the next you feel like you need surgery again. There are more good days than bad days, but the bad ones stand out in the mind. After a bad bullpen, I can’t get it off my mind. It’s been a true test of patience and hard work.
Athletic success is all about the hard work a person puts in. To be average or below average, that’s easy. To be the best, that’s the hardest part. My grandpa always said, “The harder you work, the luckier you’ll be.” I take that to heart and make sure that if I’m in the weight room, athletic training room or at the park, I give it my all and good things will happen.