After a slow rise through the minors, John Baker(notes) joined the Florida Marlins in July 2008. He hit a home run in his second major league game and quickly established himself as the team's starting catcher. His fortunes turned sour in the 2010 season, when a lingering elbow injury eventually required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in September.
We are humbled to host Baker's comeback story in an open-ended series of posts written by him.
My eyes opened from surgery and, from what I can recall, I saw my wife and Dr. Andrews. He murmured something about a "stronger ligament" and my wife, Meghan, seemed both concerned and pregnant (about four months at the time). The hospital gave me a sling to support my heavily bandaged arm, and I even got to take a wheelchair ride to the car. In what seemed like an incredibly quick turnaround, we flew back to Jupiter, Fla. (from Pensacola, where the surgery was performed) the next day.
The first six weeks of recovery from Tommy John surgery are really unremarkable for the patient. I wore a sling and half cast for a week before they gave me a brace that controlled my range of motion. The major annoyance in my life was the brace.
Imagine brushing your teeth, changing your contact lenses, eating or even going through your wallet with your non-dominant hand. I was going a little bit insane. The best moment of the first six weeks happened the day we took that brace off. If I were able to, I would have set fire to that flipping thing the moment it finally came off my arm. I haven't written about it too much because I hated it (and still hate it) so much.
Sure, by limiting my range of motion, the brace kept my elbow safe. But, at the same time, it smelled awful and left me with several permanent scars due to the blisters caused by the constant, irritating rubbing. Good riddance, brace — I still hate you.
Assisted by Gene Basham, our rehab coordinator, I had performed daily range-of-motion stretches to, over time, regain full flexion and extension in my elbow. We also did lots of strengthening of the rotator cuff, which can weaken after elbow surgery. No one had to tell me twice to keep my shoulder strong; Another surgery would have been strike three.
The fans of South Florida were getting a chance to watch the sweet swing of Logan Morrison(notes) and the epic power of Mike Stanton(notes). Gaby Sanchez(notes) showed the world what everybody who has played with him already knew: He is really, really good. Seeing Brad Davis(notes) play put a smile on my face; I know what it feels like to toil in the minors and then suddenly realize your childhood dreams.
Strangely though, I didn't feel very connected to the team. I was in Jupiter with Meghan while the team was on the road, and most of the friends I had made in the big leagues were gone. Baseball is tough on friendships. Here is an example:
Cody always has a smile on his face. Always. But I distinctly remember the day he was told the Giants had claimed him off waivers. He walked to the back of the clubhouse and met with the front office. Cody slowly shuffled back and seemed to be contemplating some complex problem. They have given him the bad news (in hindsight, it was good — for him). But, for the first time ever, I saw a melancholy Cody Ross(notes).
Even when he punched out three times or made an error, he would smile. He always seemed to shake everything off; a consummate professional. As he meandered back toward the players, I could see him lock eyes with Dan Uggla(notes). Both guys had made their names in South Florida and shared a relationship different than any other on the club. They acted like childhood friends: At lunch they would sit together, before the game they'd play casino, on the road they went to dinner. Their boys were inseparable when around each other as well. What they had bordered on brotherhood. They were family.
I saw Dan start to well up. Cody hadn't said a word about what happened, but strangely, we all knew anyway. As Cody hugged his way toward Uggla, I made sure to fall in line and say my good-bye. I gave him a hug, wished him the best and searched for the ever-present glimmer in his eye, but couldn't find it. He passed me, moved on to Dan and they hugged like brothers do at a wedding. The bond they shared was the essence of team; Each would fight for the other on a moment's notice.
For that instant I forgot about being hurt (it was before surgery) and awkwardly stood there, watching the interaction. The tough, run-into-a-wall, square-jawed second baseman just melted down. Uggla hid his face from the rest of us, but his sentiment implied something greater was happening. We all knew, the few of us left from the previous two years, that things were changing for the Marlins. The organization was deciding to move in a new direction.
Sometimes in baseball, you get hurt in ways that aren't physical.
The 2010 season ended quietly and I was told it was OK to continue my rehab back home in Northern California. It was early October when I began the second stage of my journey.
Follow John Baker on Twitter — @manbearwolf — and follow Big League Stew all season for his inside look at what it's really like to be a baseball player rehabilitating from a serious elbow injury.
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Previous posts by John Baker: