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Tommy John surgery can help but recovery for area baseball players is no picnic

July 21, 2014 Updated: July 21, 2014 at 10:15 pm
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Former Air Academy catcher Trevor Goldberg practices throwing in Woodstone Park Monday, July 21, 2014. He recently had a Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. Photo by Julia Moss, The Gazette

As he helplessly sat in the dugout and watched his Dixie State baseball team practice earlier this spring, Trevor Goldberg stared at the bulky brace and sling around his right arm and tried to remember his life without baseball.

He couldn’t.

“I’ve been playing ever since I was 4 years old,” Goldberg said. “I took after my dad (Doug), who was a catcher in the Montreal Expos farm system. I wanted to be like him, and he was my first coach. I fell in love with the game.”

As Goldberg and scores of other players have found, the game can be cruel. The 2013 Air Academy graduate joined the growing list of athletes to suffer torn elbow ligaments and undergo Tommy John surgery to resume their careers.

The procedure, first performed in 1974 on major league pitcher Tommy John by Dr. Frank Jobe, uses a borrowed tendon from the forearm or below the knee to replace the torn one. Countless careers have been saved by the surgery that seems quite routine now, but the nine to 12 months of rehab can truly test one’s patience.

“I was in Utah, 600 miles away in a sling and brace, and I still had to go to practice every day,” Goldberg said. “I wanted to get back out there, and I was mad about it for a bit, but I knew I had to trust the process.”

Goldberg can only be encouraged at the results of his friends and former area competitors after their recoveries from Tommy John. And he regularly sees a number of major league players flourish after suffering the same injury.

Nick Green and Ben Underhill, pitchers from Fountain-Fort Carson and Pine Creek, respectively, both missed their junior years in high school after undergoing the procedure. Nearly two months ago, Green, who started his college career at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College was chosen in the seventh round by Texas and is on the club’s team in the Arizona Rookie League.

Underhill, who graduated in May, signed a scholarship offer at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., in the spring.

“I would say the biggest thing that I have learned is how much hard work it actually took to come back and be able to compete,” Underhill said. “I would say I’ve been in so much better shape since the surgery. I also learned a lot on the importance of keeping my arm in shape.”

During last week’s All-Star break, several top orthopedists, highlighted by the well-known Dr. James Andrews, met in Seattle to address the sharp increase of elbow ligament-replacement surgeries, and how Major League Baseball should proceed.

While Commissioner Bud Selig is expected to make a statement next month, longtime area coach Bernie Moncallo already has all the evidence he needs. To him, there’s no coincidence between the rise in injuries and a recent trend to year-round baseball.

“The big thing is that these kids have no down time,” said Moncallo, who recently took over as baseball coach at Vista Ridge after earlier tenures at Cheyenne Mountain and Air Academy. “It’s overuse and no time to shut down due to club ball and the pressure for kids to get scholarships. We need to get focused on rest and how to work out and lift correctly.”

With club baseball, teams carry fewer players, meaning most everyone pitches at some point.

“I would say overuse is a bigger part of the equation than mechanics,” Underhill said.

Goldberg, who made his name as a catcher, also served as the Kadets closer, helping his team to the 4A state championship game in 2012. Now, he’s eight months into his rehab and looks forward to being at full strength by the time fall baseball starts.

“I’m just a competitor, and if I had to do it over again, I definitely would have done things differently in high school,” Goldberg said. “I would have maintained my arm strength and I would not have pitched. In club and summer ball, your pitching staffs run short, and teams might need another arm. I’d say that is part of the blame for why there are so many guys having Tommy John.”

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