Toast to Tommy

Corwin_2016Baseball  By Kyle Corwin

Baseball has often been called the game of failure. For Logan Aylor, bouncing back from failures on the field was nothing compared to what he would have to overcome off the field.

The story of how Tommy John surgery revolutionized the game of baseball began in an Indiana basketball gym around the end of the 1950s. Tommy John was a highly touted hardwood hero as a kid, but upon realizing his chances of advancing to the professional level were gone, he chose to hone his skills on the diamond. Signing with the Cleveland Indians and later jumping around the league, John saw a great deal of success as he would go on to appear in three World Series (despite being on the losing end each time) and garner All-Star honors four times. While his success on the mound is hard to deny, what “T.J.” is and will be most known for is the surgery that was completed to repair his permanently damaged ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his throwing arm. This surgery would become one of the most revolutionary happenings in the game of baseball, as it would go on to save countless careers of ballplayers that would have been cut short without it, including that of Logan Aylor. Although many might know the name Tommy John, not everyone knows the complexity of the surgery and all that is involved in successfully executing it.

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Tommy John’s decision to undergo UCL surgery would change the game of baseball forever.

UCL surgery involves replacing the destroyed UCL with another ligament from somewhere else in the body. While it might sound dangerous to the average person, it has become a highly utilized surgery, being completed by some of the world’s most renowned surgeons like Dr. James Andrews, the same man to perform Aylor’s operation. According to MLB.com, “Historically, 15-20 Major League pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery per year but over the past three years that number has increased to 25-30. A 2012-2013 survey of active players found that 25% of Major League pitchers and 15% of Minor League pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery at some point in their careers.” Even at the professional level, the numbers are climbing, and the recovery (12-24 months) requires patience from players. Even though the turnaround time for such a devastating injury is relatively quick in the grand scheme of things, any baseball player that goes through it will tell you that the medical clearance could not come soon enough. The surgery, while unfortunate, is something that baseball players must deal with if their ultimate goal is to continue playing.

Receiving first team All-District and second team All-Conference honors in high school, Aylor had his sights set on having a successful college career. Such aspirations would not happen at the start of college, however, as the Culpeper, Virginia native would quickly learn that his dreams would be delayed. His Tommy John experience started with a diagnosis and was followed by a decision.

For me this news came in the winter of my freshman year at Christopher Newport University. I had a decision to make, either to give up on my dream of playing college baseball or get the surgery that would take at least 12 months of recovery time. So I decided to get a medical redshirt and get the surgery.”

All of this surprised Aylor, as he claimed he felt little to no pain while throwing at any point in high school. There have been numerous myths surrounding Tommy John surgery and the causes of UCL damage, as there have been arguments claiming that it’s a sudden injury. However, it has been verified through medical research that this just is not the case. According to Baseball Reference, “tests performed on pitchers indicate that the ligament becomes frayed over years of abuse, starting in youth baseball, and eventually snaps.” Nonetheless, Aylor accepted what was about to unfold before him and handled it in stride. After a period of uncertainty regarding the future of his arm, things started falling into place for him.

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Dr. James Andrews is one of the most respected orthopedic medicine figures in the field.

I finally got a surgery date set in March with Dr. James Andrews at the Andrews Institute in Pensacola, Florida. On March 3rd 2015, Dr. Andrews reconstructed my UCL Ligament with my palmaris longus tendon.”

From that point on, it would be a process for Aylor, as it is with every other baseball player that experiences it. But as Tommy John himself will tell you, it is without question, worth it: “A lot of times we take baseball for granted. That it’s always going to be there. I had it taken away from me. So if I got a chance to pitch again, I was not going to let it go without a fight.” This was the same mentality that Aylor would take into his rehabilitation, which would take place over the next year. It was not easy for him, as the rehab exercises and training programs for this particular injury are long and tedious:

The day after surgery I started doing shoulder activation exercises in my cast and sling. I did these same activation exercises for about 2 to 3 weeks until I moved from a sling to a brace. While in the brace I worked on mobility and extension to straighten out my arm. I was in the brace for about 5 or 6 weeks slowly doing wrist and forearm exercises and working on shoulder abduction and deduction. After losing the brace I started to do band exercises every day, supplementing this band work with shoulder raises and working on building strength of my scapular muscles. After doing tireless amounts of rehab I went back to Pensacola in June and was cleared by Dr. Andrews and his physical therapy staff to throw again. I started throwing off of the mound when I got back to school in the fall of my sophomore year in college. At that point, my arm was feeling stronger and healthier than ever. I was throwing 3 times a week and increasing in pitch count and pitch speed at each stage in my throwing program. Throughout the throwing program I continued to rehab 4 to 5 times a week and workout on off days.”

As someone who was in the athletic training room often getting worked on and taped up for various things, I often saw the right-hander performing his daily exercises which included the use of bands, balls, and weights. To his trainers, teammates and coaches, it was clear that there was a sense of determination in his mind to overcome this particular obstacle that was delaying his return to the game he loves so much. Fortunately, with a tremendous combination of countless hours and hard work, Aylor finally reached a point where he could see the light: “My surgeon finally cleared me to pitch competitively in March of 2016. It took me 369 days since the date of surgery until I was cleared.” Even this step was huge for him and his family, Aylor would not be satisfied until he could toe the rubber when it would really matter, a day which came shortly after his medical clearance: “I made my college debut on March 10th, throwing 17 pitches and striking out two in one inning of work.”

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Aylor (#28) is congratulated by teammates after his debut against St. Mary’s College (MD).

Now that the hard part is over, Aylor can focus on refining his skills that deteriorated over the course of the rehabilitation process. Additionally, he can work on inserting himself into the conversation of who the top pitchers for Christopher Newport University will be for the next couple years now that he is no longer bound by the restricting and demoralizing injury that is a torn UCL. He may just be one of countless athletes in the world, but he is among elite company having gone through a surgery that many well-known baseball players have undergone. Aces Jose Fernandez (Marlins), Matt Harvey (Mets), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Adam Wainwright (Cardinals) are just a few of the flamethrowers from recent memory to find themselves under the knife for Tommy John. Although any type of setback is unfortunate, they can often create opportunities for one to learn more about themselves, work with others, and regain an appreciation for what may have been taken for granted in the past. Logan Aylor’s surgery allowed him to do just that. His appreciation for what the experience taught reflects a feeling of thankfulness and gratitude:

Tommy john rehab is a long road and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to come back and pitch competitively again. However, I would not have been able to do any of it without the support of my family, friends, and faith pushing me to get better every day.”

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