Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated, via Getty Images
New York Times
May 26, 2012
By BOB OJEDA
I'd lived with pain in my left arm since I was 12, when my dad would have me ice it after a Little League outing. My dad, who had pitched in the Army, was something of a pioneer in caring for young arms. Besides, he told me, Sandy Koufax iced his arm
"Right, Dad," I said. "Let's ice it."
But this time, the pain was brutal, and, well, I wasn't in Little League anymore. It was 1986, and I was set to start Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against the Astros in Houston. I'd won 18 games in my first season with the Mets. I'd pitched a complete game in a 5-1 victory over the Astros in Game 2.
But damn. I mean, it hurt. Like a screwdriver was stuck in it. So, after years of ice, pain medicine, massage and sleeping in long-sleeved shirts to keep my left arm warm and safe, the team doctor said I had only one option left — to stick something in it. Like a needle. With something powerful in the vial.
Bad break, though: the team doctor was in Washington. I was in New York. The game was in Houston. So the team trainer called and told me to meet him at Shea Stadium. I went into the trainer's room, and he gave me two needles and two vials: one with a numbing agent and the other with cortisone. I stuffed them in my leather jacket, grabbed a cab over to La Guardia Airport and hopped the shuttle down to Washington.
I met the doctor at the hotel, where he was attending a conference. He probed my elbow because, for the best result, he needed to hit the spot where it hurt most. The numbing agent, something of a misnomer, stung. The cortisone, though, burned like hell. But I thanked him and headed back to New York, and then on to Houston.
On Oct. 15, I went to the bullpen and started to throw. It was not going well. It felt like I had two sandbags stuffed in my elbow. I was in trouble, I remember thinking, but I figured I had to try. I gave up three runs in the first inning. Davey Johnson, the manager, stayed with me. A big deal. For him. For me. For my elbow, from which the sand had started, grain by grain, to run out. I went five innings. We won in 16.
My left arm and I were going to the World Series.
Relationships between pitchers and their arms are unique — extremely, even excessively, focused partnerships full of fear and pain and trust and hope. The relationship starts early and can end badly. Anytime. Mike Pelfrey of the Mets is off for Tommy John elbow surgery. Michael Pineda had his shoulder repaired. Johan Santana is coming back from surgery. Medicine has made advances. Miracles happen. Still, ruin is always one pitch away, especially if you are already making those pitches in pain.
Once I started pitching, I'm not sure my left arm ever didn't hurt. For more than three decades, whether in Little League or the minor leagues or Fenway Park in Boston, there was pain. Sharp or dull, in the elbow or at the shoulder. Throwing fastballs as a kid or junk as a lefty trying to stay in the big leagues, it all led to pain. It would be dulled by aspirin or beer or more powerful cocktails of medicine and booze. But it would never leave.
It was, then, all about managing the pain, and my dad was my first manager.
My dad, who had been a cook in the Army and served at Iwo Jima, was a big guy: 6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds. I wanted him to think I was tough, so I wasn't too keen on his icing ideas. He told me about Koufax, and I listened.
My dad had been raised without a father to protect him, and so I, in front of him, felt weak yet profoundly cared for. In addition to the ice, he let me pitch only once a week. Certainly no curveballs until I was 16.
Like most kids, I played more than one position. My dad was not only careful; he could also be creative. When I was little and we were living in Anaheim, Calif., we built a batting cage in our backyard. One day, we took a drive to the fishing docks in Newport to look for old nets from the commercial fishing boats. We found some with holes that the captain was willing to sell. We took them home and got some two-by-fours and built what we called a cage.
We eventually moved to a small town in Central California. I was skinny and awkward and painfully shy. But being a very good athlete made that stuff disappear. My Little League team went 15-0. My coach was a good man named Burl Hyde. My dad wanted to make sure I played under a good coach, so when we moved there, I guess he made some calls. Next thing I know, my dad tells me we are going down the street and having a catch with this guy. We had a catch, and I do remember a big grin from both of them.
I was soon on the Red Legs of the local Little League. They were the best team in town every year, I came to find out. I started to sleep in my uniform. I couldn't be late, and I had to leave time to throw up. Nerves. I played first base, center field and pitcher. I hit around .400 and threw hard.
In high school, my dad told the coach I would pitch only once a week. It never sat well with the coach, and he paid me back by telling the scouts who came to watch me that my arm was always sore. Hey, in a way, he was telling the truth. But trying to kill a kid's career before it could get started? Out of spite? Not cool. So if my arm was bad, the coach was worse. Anyway, surprise, no one drafted me after high school. So I went to junior college in town. I was, at least to start, the first baseman. But in one game, our best pitcher struggled, and the coach told me to warm up. I got ready and came in. There were runners on first and second. I walked the first guy. Overthrowing. I tried to calm this left arm of mine. Then I punched out the next three with gas.
I was now a pitcher. I went 10-0 or something. We made the playoffs and went to Sacramento. There were 15 scouts in the stands, and I choked. Couldn't find the plate. My arm hurt. It showed.
Again, no one drafted me.
Anyway, there was another dad in town who coached. He was a gruff old dude with a cigar always stuck in his mouth, the father of an adopted kid my age who also played. He was also what was known as a bird-dog scout. He didn't have the juice of a full-blown scout, but he was connected. I once hit six of his guys in a game. Six in a row. He was screaming at me from the third-base coach's box to get it over the plate, telling me I was going to hurt somebody, that I didn't belong on the mound and so on. Now, I don't know if that made me do it more or less, but I do know I liked seeing guys step in the box shaking.
I threw hard, and I would have been scared, too.
Still, I was stuck in my second year of junior college. And I stunk. By then, my left hand had lost a lot of feeling. My fingers were perpetually cold. My elbow felt as if it had broken glass in it. The elbow — and my pitching — were so bad that my left arm even managed to attract a new insult. The scout for the Mets told me and my dad that my arm was, in fact, too short. He was being a wise guy, of course. But still. My arm's too short? It can mess with your head. Or at least my relationship with the arm I'd grown fond of.
But one way or another, I was still running it up to the plate. Even if I couldn't always get the outs I needed, I was left-handed, and I threw hard. That's enough to get you signed.
$500 and a Ticket to Elmira
On a June day in 1978, out of the blue, the old bird-dog scout called my dad. He was working for the Red Sox. He told my dad he could sign me if I would take $500 and a ticket to Elmira, N.Y., where their rookie league team was based.
I took my bonus and bought a suit, a shirt and shoes for the trip, then took my folks to dinner. Just like that, the money was gone. Didn't matter. I was in pro ball.
After I signed, I told myself that if I didn't make it, it would not be because I wasn't trying. So for the first time in my life, I began to work out. Started running at night and swimming. I played catch with my dad every day and threw off a mound at school. Time dragged waiting for the call about when to leave. It didn't come. Finally, I called the Red Sox and wanted to know if we still had a deal. They were surprised I wasn't already in Elmira. Not long after, the ticket arrived.
I began to sleep in a long-sleeved shirt to keep my shoulder warm. My dad said it should help. He told me how the old pros would sleep on a train with their arms in a sling attached to the wall so they would not sleep on it wrong.
Soon enough, I was at the local airport getting on a flight to Elmira, waving goodbye to my folks. I was going to the biggest Little League game of my life, and I was scared.
I arrived at the field in Elmira during batting practice. I went up to the manager and introduced myself. He asked what position I played. His casualness, I think, was intentional. He could see I was freaked. He might have seen there was a real question of whether I belonged there at all, at any position. The club had sunk no money into me.
But I took my time answering. I told him I played first base and pitched, and then I asked him, "What is the quickest way to the big leagues?"
"Pitching," he said.
"Skip, I'm a pitcher."
I did not talk to anyone for a week. My roommate was a nice guy from the Midwest. His "night before a start" routine was a six-pack of beer, even if he did not much want it. It was like a camp without counselors.
On the mound? I overthrew. Again and again. Always. Not great for the left arm. Thank goodness the aspirin in the trainer's room was free.
The skipper saw something in me, I can't tell you what, but it got me invited down to the Instructional League in Sarasota, Fla., for the fall. Johnny Podres, the great, retired left-hander for the Dodgers, taught me a better changeup and a curve.
I went to spring training in 1979 and made the Winter Haven club, a top-level Class A team. I was not a starter at first. The guys the Red Sox had money in got the first shot. Not long into the season, one got a sore arm. and I was put in his spot. This was my shot. I dealt — 15-7 with something like a 2.00 earned run average.
A year later, I was working out with AA guys. But late in camp, the AAA team needed a left-handed starter. I was the only guy in that camp to move up on cut day. I did well in the season. The trainer kept me out there. I got THE CALL to go to Boston in July or August. My first start was a day game against Detroit at Fenway. I got to the yard at 8 a.m.
The clubbie, a classic named Vinny, asked what I was doing there so early. I had no answer but suggested that maybe I'd left time to puke. I headed to the bullpen to get warm. I was overwhelmed with emotion but kept it together. My dad and mom were there for this. (I had to borrow the money from the owner of the AAA team to get them there.)
They announced the lineup, and I heard my name. This couldn't be happening. They played the anthem, and it was time to head to the mound. As soon as I crossed the chalk line, I was convinced I would be tackled by security and thrown out of the park. I made it to the mound unscathed. First pitch was a strike. The rest was a blur.
My time up there was short. I was not going to stick, and I knew it. Pain and no velocity. That's what I had. That was my "stuff." After my last bad game, I got the call in my room from the traveling secretary telling me my flight back to Pawtucket, R.I., and the minors was at noon. The thing was, I must have sounded surprised because the traveling secretary asked me if I had heard from the manager. No. His voice registered disgust.
After finishing the season in AAA, I went home and worked for my dad at his upholstery shop, and we played catch every other day. I decided to help my left arm by building up the strength in my legs. Dad's advice again. In truth, if he knew how bad my arm hurt, he might have advised me to finally take up my second career option: forest ranger. I'm serious.
Oh, and I went to the local karate gym and told the guy I wasn't interested in a belt; I needed to learn how to fight. At first, he was not into that, but I explained that I was a baseball player and that last season, they had kicked the spit out of me in the big leagues and I didn't want that to happen again. But if it did, someone was going to pay. I had to come inside more with my pitches, and if somebody charged the mound, I wanted to be sure I was going to get in the first punch.
I got to spring training in February 1981 and threw lights out — fastball in the low 90s, and my slider had teeth, broke late and sharp. Nasty. I was back on their radar. Amazing how the hurt fades in such moments.
Then it happened. I was on the mound in Pawtucket and let a fastball go. POP. I felt as if I had been shot in the shoulder. I flipped a couple of changeups in there and got out of the inning.
I headed off the mound and signaled to my pitching coach, Mike Roarke, to follow me to the locker room. I told him straight out what happened, and followed with this: "I'm not coming out of the game." He said he had to pull me. I was supposed to go to the big club any day, and they needed to know. Not to mention he did not want to see me ruin my arm.
What he did not know is that my arm had been bad for years.
He was a mountain of a man, an old catcher with busted hands; he knew how to play with pain. I told him that this was my shot and that if he didn't help me, I would deny this conversation ever happened. Right then and there, he reworked my delivery to take pressure off my shoulder, and I headed back out to the game. No one ever knew.
After that, Mike kept tweaking my delivery to make it work. He suggested more changeups and to back down on the fastball. He saved my career before it ever started. I made it back to the bigs in 1981. I never saw the minors again. We had a great trainer, and I grew up as a pitcher in one of the toughest ballparks for lefties in the bigs. I stayed with Boston until the winter of 1985. My left arm spent 1985 both starting and relieving. Ten games in April, mix in warming up, that's as bad as it can get when your arm's hanging.
Whatever It Took in '86
O.K., so I got traded to the Mets. I could not tell you one thing about them. I had been in the A.L. for five years. Their clubhouse vibe was edgy: Let's do everything hard. Even Davey Johnson carried himself with the confidence of a man with a gun in a knife fight. It rubbed off on me quickly. I felt at home at last. We wanted to win at all costs. That team made playing hurt the rule, not the exception. Sore? Take this. Tired? Take this. Overserved last night? Take this. There was no "next year." It was now or nothing. The speed we were running at would never last. We all knew it but didn't give a damn.
As for my arm? Standard operating procedure: the trainer wanted to talk about my routines and quirks and such. We all had them. He had to decipher our superstitions, security blankets and legitimate concerns to our physical health. Trainers who have been around filter the garbage as well as the best sewer treatment plant. I slung my brand of bull, and the trainer, Steve Garland, pretended to buy it. He'd ask how I was doing, and I'd say, "Fine." He knew that I was lying and that that was the way it was supposed to be. I trusted and liked him right off.
I told Steve that I took eight aspirin a day but that sometimes I needed a little more help. Anti-inflammatories, stuff like that. I started the season in the bullpen and got my first start April 22. Our routine was that after every start, I sunk my elbow in a bucket of ice (doubled as a beer cooler) for 20 to 30 minutes. A few cigarettes and beers later, no pain. Imagine. Not much other than that.
A few starts later, the pain in my elbow decided to let me know I should have been a ranger. Steve was now massaging my elbow between starts and using ice cups after bullpen sessions. The ice cup was nothing more than a Styrofoam cup of water that had been put in the freezer. You rubbed it on the affected spot, and as it melted, you tore away the cup and continued.
By then, my love affair with my changeup was in full bloom. Quite simply, it hurt less to throw. By June, we were eight or nine games up, and it was over for the rest of the N.L. East. But I had a problem: my elbow was flat-out quitting on me. Time to get in the jar. The team doctor examined me and said I needed to rest it. That wasn't going to happen, I told him. I played the "this conversation never happened" card, and he respected my decision to take responsibility for the consequences. He prescribed the pills I needed.
I knew I was forgoing a possibly longer career for a shot at a championship. I was more than willing to pay the price. This was a dream season, and I knew it. I should not have made it that far to begin with.
Steve was winning the fight with my elbow. Somehow he got me out there every five days. And Dr. Parkes [the team doctor James Parkes], well, he was wise enough not to wake me from this dream season in hopes that I might have another one sometime in the future. You won't find that in a stat book. He adjusted my help accordingly.
It was August. We were 17 games up. I was looking forward to September. Five or six starts until the postseason. Steve and I could do it. Then Davey began to set the postseason rotation. He wanted me for Game 2 in Houston. I caught a break in late September when Davey skipped my start. I'm not sure, but I think he knew my arm was hanging. Steve might have sprung a leak, or I might have let on how bad it was.
I might have said, when asked how it felt, "O.K." instead of "fine." In pitching vernacular, "O.K." is not O.K. "Fine" is O.K. "O.K." means "it hurts, but I'm not coming out."
On Oct. 9, in the second game of the N.L.C.S., I threw a complete game in Houston. We won, 5-1. The extra days were a huge help. Not just the rest, but more important, Steve was able to spend some quality time with my elbow.
But on the plane back to New York, something went wrong. The elbow locked. I felt it and moved something around. It unlocked for the moment.
Back in New York, I got my treatment and tried a bullpen session on Sunday the 12th. No chance. It was time for a needle, or it was over.
So I caught that shuttle to Washington, and the doctor and I had our rendezvous in the hotel room.
We were going to the World Series, and I had accepted that my arm might not forgive me for what I was doing to it. The strange thing was, I had let go of worrying about anything but maybe my last one or two starts ever. If this was the end, what a way to go.
I cannot honestly remember any pain through the entire World Series. I had the best game of my life in Game 3, and we won the must-win game. The rush of that game made my body numb. My next one was Game 6. I gave the team six good innings and left with the score tied, 2-2. I had a beer and a smoke in the locker room and watched the greatest comeback in modern history. We won the whole thing in seven.
'O.K.' Means Not So Good
My arm and I took the next two months off. I was trying not to think about what I would feel when I picked up a ball again. My dad and I decided to have a catch in December. Day 1 was fine. Day 6 was O.K. I knew the 1987 season was in danger.
Come January, I was throwing off a mound, and my elbow was occasionally locking. I needed to get to camp in Florida. I needed some pills. Spring, as we said, went O.K. The meds were working. Doc Gooden went into rehab right before we broke camp. Davey gave me the opening day start. Said I'd earned it. I tossed a gem, and we won. By then, I was on oral steroids. I could get through this — I always had — but I needed to self-adjust my pills. I took it upon myself to double the dose.
I looked as bad as my pitches. Weight loss from the meds and consistent pain were taking their toll. Steve was telling me to throw in the towel. I couldn't. Wasn't wired that way.
May 9 was a day game in Atlanta. I headed to the bullpen with Mel Stottlemyre, our pitching coach, and started to get loose. It wasn't happening. The more I warmed up, the worse it got. My elbow had had enough. I was bouncing balls to the catcher.
Mel asked whether I was O.K. I told him: "Yes, I'm just a little stiff. It will loosen up in a little." I was standing on the mound in the bullpen with Mel mere feet away from me, taking a break from warming up by pretending to look at women in the stands. What I was really doing was moving things in my elbow to try and unlock it.
So I told him I was good, and we left the pen for the dugout. Steve gave me a look of disapproval but would not sell me out. Yet. I went to the mound and threw my warm-up pitches, still bouncing them up there. The batters stepped in, and I had nothing. I even threw one that hit the screen. I got through the inning: one run, two hits and a walk. I went to the dugout and sat down.
Steve slid next to me with a look I had never seen on him. He asked me how I was, and I said, "O.K." Mel walked toward me, sat down on the other side and asked me the same thing. I started to say, "O.K.," but Steve interrupted me and told Mel that I was not O.K. and that I had not been for quite a while. When I couldn't look at him, Mel pulled me.
I headed back to New York alone. Parkes prescribed rest for two weeks. I said no, that I had rested that winter and it had not helped. There was something in my elbow that had to come out. He wanted me to get a second opinion, so I flew down to see the renowned Dr. James Andrews, in Birmingham, Ala. He said a chip the size of my thumbnail was floating in my ulnar canal and fraying the nerve. Scope [arthroscopy] was not an option.
I flew back to New York and had an ulnar nerve transposition — basically, the nerve was moved so that any other problems wouldn't bother me as much. They told me I would be out until the next year. That September, I pitched in three games out of the pen and started on the 27th.
So 1988 came along. My arm felt good. My dad and I started playing catch in early November. I rushed it the year before after the operation and now needed to build it up gradually. I had a solid spring. The season started, and I started hot. Arm strength was fine.
I was able to get my fastball inside to keep them off my career extender, the changeup. But the wins quit coming my way. Then, in mid-September, I was working in my yard as I had a thousand times before, and I cut part of my finger off. It hurt, and I also knew my season was over. My left arm was fine. My hand was a mess. There were no pills, shots or treatments for this. The most heartbreaking thing for me was the disappointment in my father's voice when I called to tell him.
What has always fascinated me was the amount of "credit" my missing left arm got for the fact the Dodgers beat us that October in the N.L.C.S. Now, I have never ducked from my actions, but a look at the stats shows some bloated E.R.A.'s, some less-than-timely hitting and very questionable decisions by the manager. Whatever.
I eventually moved on to Los Angeles, and then to Cleveland in 1993. I knew my shoulder was going to be a problem, but I still had the will to play. Not long after camp started, tragedy struck. A terrible boat crash, and just like that, two friends and teammates were gone. I escaped being killed by a half-inch. I was shaken to my core. This comeback would not be about my arm.
I made it back in September. There was a sense of, yes, I was back. But I had no idea how.
The following winter, the Yankees wanted me. But much like as a kid you know summer is almost over, I knew it was going to be the end. My will was alive, but my shoulder had other ideas. I had a good camp and made the team. My desire to play was, for the first time in my life, not 100 percent.
That spelled doom for me. I no longer could trick hitters with my inside fastball and changeup away. So early in the 1994 season, I was asked to leave. When the day came, I was actually relieved.
No more pain and anxiety about when it would end. It was over. No more pills or shots. And ice was now for my drinks only.
I have no regrets. Would I change some things? Sure. Who wouldn't, but that's not how the game or life works. Once a pitch is thrown, you don't get it back. As for the pain and the lying and the treatments and operations? I signed on for that. No one forced me, and in some weird way, I enjoyed it — not the problems but the burning desire to play through them.