There is one injury and one procedure that without a doubt sends chills down every pitchers’ spine.
Those three words are: Tommy John surgery.
The procedure is more properly known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (or UCL). It is a surgical operation in which a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body.
For Sam Houston State, redshirt sophomore left-handed pitcher Seth Ballew had to face the rigorous challenge of recovering from it.
“I had the surgery in August of 2015 and I first picked up a ball and started throwing on Jan. 11 of 2016,” Ballew said. “I had over six months of not being able to throw a baseball and I had to do physical rehab stuff and a throwing program. The recovery time is going on 19 months.”
Over two years ago, Ballew’s baseball career was put in jeopardy. He was playing for the Blinn College Buccaneers at the time and was on the mound for a game in late February. Ballew felt his elbow pop after a pitch and immediately knew something was wrong.
“It was about a month before that game when I started feeling some pain in there,” Ballew said. “Of course I did what people tell you not to do and I researched it and looked it up. There were some signs of ulnar collateral ligament tears, but I was able to pitch on it for about three games before it finally popped.”
Blinn referred Ballew to a local doctor in order to find the root of what was going on. The pitcher visited the professional from February to May, but the MRIs came up negative, showing no signs of any injury.
“He was telling me there was no structural damage and that nothing was wrong,” Ballew said. “So I kept trying to throw and it wasn’t getting any better.”
Some symptoms of ulnar collateral ligament damage include pain on the inside of the elbow, a sense of looseness or instability in the elbow, irritation of the ulnar nerve and numbness in the small finger and ring finger.
Ballew said he felt his symptoms every time he would lay back his left arm.
“The main one I remember was every time I would lay back my elbow there would be a knifing sharp pain,” Ballew said. “It was right in the UCL tunnel, so that was probably the biggest amount of pain there was.”
Taking the doctor’s word that there was nothing wrong; Ballew ignored the pain and continued playing baseball. Nothing was getting better, so he decided to seek a second opinion from Dr. Keith Meister, who is also the Texas Rangers’ medical professional.
“I talked to coach Sirianni and he sent me to Dr. Meister,” Ballew said. “He performed another MRI on me and basically didn’t find anything wrong. He put me on a throwing program.”
The throwing program that Dr. Meister assigned did not work out the way he expected. The sharp pain returned to Ballew’s elbow in mid-July, and finally, a surgery was performed on Aug. 5, 2015 right before attending his first semester at SHSU.
“I had a weird tear,” Ballew said. “Tears are normally straight down, but mine was like a little pin hole tear. They took my tendon out of my right wrist and they basically went in and just figurated it around the hurt ligament.”
Tommy John surgery is said to be a risky procedure because of how many question marks surround the recovery process. Every human reacts differently to an injury and the main focus of the pitcher is returning to normal form.
According to Keller Marshall of the Am J Sports Medical Journal (2015), 25 percent of pitchers who have first-time Tommy John surgery need additional surgical procedures; 34 percent go on to have throwing shoulder problems and 57 percent return to the disabled list at least one more time. However, the success rate of the procedure is on the rise and pitchers around the country are finding more success on the mound following surgery.
“I’m familiar with the success rate of Tommy John surgery,” Ballew said. “It has come a long way since the surgery first came along. I had known a couple of my buddies who had Tommy John and had comeback. I wasn’t worried about my career being over, more just me being the same kind of player when I came back.”
Ballew said his toughest challenge of returning to the mound was his mental game.
“It was tough picking up a ball and throwing again because you have a mental block in your head,” Ballew said. “To where you’re like ‘I don’t know how it’s going to be’, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to feel’, ‘Is it going to feel any better?’ I would say that was the toughest.”
SHSU redshirt junior catcher Hunter Southerland went through Tommy John surgery two years before Ballew did. The two are roommates and Ballew said that Southerland’s past experience with the injury helped him get through his.
“He knew kind of the ins-and-outs and what I would be going through,” Ballew said. “He was definitely the biggest person that helped me through it all. I’d come to him about certain stuff I was feeling and certain things I could do to strengthen it back up.”
Ballew is now seeing action this season for the first time since injuring his left elbow two years ago. The Bearkat has started in three games, has pitched 10.1 innings and holds a 6.10 earned run average with five strikeouts.
“It’s a great feeling being back out there after two years,” Ballew said. “I’m just so excited to finally get back on the mound and compete. Everyone comes back from an injury differently, but I feel fine. I feel strong out there. It’s just working back into it.”
The SHSU pitcher is expected to make his next start on Saturday against Lamar University.
“It was bad,” Ballew said. “But like I said, with the help from everybody around me, our coaches, my family and my friends, I’ve been able to come back and I’ll be stronger than ever.”