Fernando Rodriguez's road to recovery
April, 24, 2013
By Dan Friedell | ESPN The Magazine
Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty ImagesFernando Rodriguez recounts his injury and subsequent surgery.Editor’s Note: Fernando Rodriguez, 28, is a right-handed relief pitcher with the Oakland A’s. He made his big-league debut in 2009 with the Angels and appeared in 118 games the past two seasons with the Houston Astros. On Feb. 4 of this year, Rodriguez was traded from the Astros to the A’s, and suffered a season-ending tear of his ulnar collateral ligament a month later. The injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery will leave Rodriguez off the field until 2014. Here, the recuperating pitcher documents his journey from the trade to the surgery, exclusively for Playbook.
I should have known this season would be a little different when it started with a U-turn.
Thanks to a torn ligament in my elbow that resulted in Tommy John surgery on March 25, I went from feeling good in my first bullpen session with the A’s, my new team, to being the guy that only showered every other day for a while.
It began when my wife, Myla, our baby boy, Benicio Ray, and I decided to get a head start on driving from our home in El Paso, Texas to Kissimmee, Fla. where the Astros have Spring Training each year. It’s a 1,700 mile drive, so with a two-month-old, we wanted to make sure we had extra time. We were all the way on the other side of Texas when I got a call from the Astros telling me I had been traded to Oakland. That was on Feb. 4, so we had to stop, turn around and head back to El Paso, where we stayed for a day before going to Arizona for Spring Training with the A’s. That turned out to be a long trip across Texas.
On the way to Phoenix, where the A’s have Spring Training, I had a lot of time to think about my new team and how I would fit in. You get traded and along with being excited, you start looking at which guys are on the team and how they did last year. It was going to be my 10th season in professional baseball, I got drafted in 2003, and I started feeling comfortable with what I could do. I ended last season throwing 97, and felt like I might be a good fit with this team. It helped when Bob Melvin, the manager, was being interviewed about the trade and he had some good things to say about me. It gave me more confidence hearing that I wasn’t just part of a trade, but I was a key piece. It helped me fit in a little better.
We went out to throw our first bullpen and the ball was coming out of my hand well. Everybody was like, “This is no joke, you’re ready to go.”
Once the games got started, I wasn’t throwing as well as I hoped, but I still felt good. I was going about my business with my workouts and just feeling that usual tiredness you feel as you’re getting into shape. Feeling like your elbow is getting used to throwing again and doing the same stuff I’ve done for 10 years -- taking care of my body.
It was on March 11 when I got hurt. We were playing San Diego and I felt good in the bullpen, as well as I’d felt in a while. I threw well in the seven or eight warm-up pitches once I got in the game, and then threw seven pitches to the batter. On the last pitch, as my arm passed my ear, I heard something pop. It was loud, like snapping your fingers. I didn’t feel any pain, but I knew something wasn’t right. The pitch before was a foul ball, and then the next pitch was a ball in the dirt, maybe five feet in front of the catcher. They say when you have this kind of injury you have no idea where the ball’s going to go. Maybe my body took it well, which was why there wasn’t any pain. But I knew something was wrong and I called the trainer out. He told me it could be a lot of things, but I was just hoping it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
It was a weird feeling, because it didn’t hurt, there was no swelling, and I still had my normal range of motion. But I knew something was wrong, so I called my wife and told her I got hurt and would have to see the doctor the next day. When I did, I got an MRI and the doctor said “this is a little weird. There’s no swelling, but the tendon is 100-percent torn. There’s not going to be any rehab to do now, you’re just going to have to have surgery. Just go see your doctor and get it done as soon as you can.”
The only problem was my doctor, Dr. Thomas Mehlhoff in Houston, wasn’t available for two weeks. So for those two weeks, I was the saddest guy in town. I went to the field to see if being with my teammates could make me a little happier and I could forget about it. And everybody came up to me and said, “You can get better, you’ll come back stronger.” I played along with it, but it was still tough. I just decided there was nothing else for me to do but try to get into the best shape I could before the surgery. So I kept doing my running, my shoulder exercises and tried to stay off soda and sugars. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything for a while right after the surgery so I tried to get as fit as I could. It wasn’t really until Melvin came up to me and said “I’m glad to see a smile on your face. It’s unfortunate that this happened, but maybe it’s a blessing in disguise. Try to get better, take your time and don’t worry about it.”
It’s tough, because aside from some shoulder tendinitis, I’ve never really been injured. So going in for surgery was difficult. They used to use the tendon from a cadaver, but it’s not that way anymore. They check your arm for the tendon that pops out when you put your thumb and pinkie together and flex your wrist. If that’s long enough, that’s what they use. So now I have two scars: one on my elbow and one on my forearm.
So what I’m doing now is trying to get a little better every day. They tell me I should expect to be playing catch after four months, and the plan is to be ready to go for Spring Training next year. Most pitchers are back on the mound about 11 months after the surgery. I’ve always been a guy who throws with maximum effort, like 150-percent. When I think about changing velocities, it’s always about throwing harder, not softer. So going from light tossing, let’s call that “Level 1,” to the next step is going to be hard for me. I’m going to try not to force it the first few months.
I never really thought I was going to be a guy who had Tommy John surgery. And with one pitch, the ligament just snapped. For a lot of guys, they have elbow pain or their velocity drops. But when I look at my scar each night, I just think that it can happen to anybody.
Everyone says that pitchers can come back from this surgery even better than before, and I hope that’s going to happen for me. Like I said, at the end of last season I hit 97. So my goal now is to come back next year and hit triple digits. But I know it’s not going to happen automatically. I’m going to go after it little by little. Do the rehab right, and come to the stadium every game and cheer my teammates on. That might be the hardest part of all, sitting in the dugout while they’re competing.
Check back here from more updates from Rodriguez as he recuperates throughout the year.