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.
Explaining why someone needs Tommy John ligament replacement surgery is not that complicated. The UCL — or Ulnar Collateral Ligament — tears and it must be repaired. The tear results in a serious amount of pain during the act of throwing, and other movements, where your arm is bent and in a load-bearing position. For example: It hurt to brush my teeth and scratch my head. I couldn't even rest my arm on the kitchen table before the surgery.
My elbow first felt funny in December 2009 when I began baseball training in preparation for the coming spring training. It took me about two weeks of playing catch at spring training before I had to say something to the trainers. The first step was to get an MRI exam with contrast dye. In typical John Baker fashion, the dye didn't take and I had to repeat the two-hour process later that day. It was a sign of things to come.
When the MRI was finally read, the doctor told me to toughen up and do some CrossFit. He said I had some forearm inflammation and that I shouldn't be concerned because the pain would go away. He prescribed a potent oral cortisone called Medrol for my "forearm strain." I guess that is why my Grandpa Bill used to say, "There is a reason a doctor's business is called a practice: They're just practicing."
By May, I was really struggling to keep it together. I had found a nutritionist in the Miami area that designed a specialized anti-inflammatory diet for me. It took a special diet, along with multiple non-steroid anti-inflammatory pills, pain killing/masking pills, about 45 minutes of therapy, plus 15 minutes in the 110-degree whirlpool to get me on the field. Needless to say, the trainers were getting tired of me.
Midway through May, before a series against the Mets, Fredi Gonzalez (the manager) called me into his office. We had just gotten back from a road trip to Chicago and Washington, and I simply couldn't hit a fastball. My health was now substantially affecting my performance and hurting our team.
Fredi convinced me to be honest with how I was feeling. He knew something was wrong; he knew what I was capable of doing on the field and he wanted me to take some time on the disabled list to figure it out. I was really sad when he got fired because, without his guidance, I never would have started on the road to recovery.
In June, I tried to participate in a rehab assignment with the Jupiter Hammerheads (the Marlins' Class A team in the Gulf Coast League), but I simply couldn't throw. The Marlins sent me to Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. He took another MRI and gave me some interesting news: He was prescribing six weeks of inactivity.
I was so depressed and frustrated about sitting around for those six weeks that I don't even want to think — much less write — about that time. When my inactivity ended, I began a throwing program. Four weeks into it, at the end of August, I attempted to play again.
After receiving platelet-rich plasma shots and hyperbaric chamber treatments, doing an extensive throwing program and resting all of that time, the result was the same: I was in serious pain. It hurt so bad to throw, I literally didn't want to play anymore. I felt like a quitter when I called our trainer and said, "I can't do this." I'm still embarrassed by that statement.
It was early September — after my fifth MRI — when Dr. Andrews walked into the waiting room and, with his southern twang remarked, "Boy, we're gonna fix you up tomorrow morning. We gotta get you right."
I had Tommy John surgery the next day at 7 a.m.
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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May 3 — Big league dream disrupted