Is there a comparison bweeten those whose surgeries were full-on incision and arthroscopic? Pineda's docs strongly implied this difference means his chances of a full(ish) recovery are much greater. Grasping at straws?
If you’re Michael Pineda, sometime in the past two weeks you felt a little twinge in your right shoulder. Whether you were throwing a bullpen or just playing catch, you felt a sharp, quick shot of pain go through your arm, and then just as quickly, disappear.
You probably looked around for a while, testing out your arm over and over again, looking for the pain to come back. And it probably didn’t. You probably told your coaches, who probably told you to try it out to see if you felt it again, and when you didn’t, they probably said they’d schedule an MRI just to make sure you were fine. You probably went to sleep that night thinking you were.
This is how labrum injuries work. The labrum is a mass of strong, grasping tissue that holds the shoulder blade in place in the socket. Throwing a baseball requires putting massive amounts of stress on the labrum, and pitchers routinely tear theirs from overuse. But shoulder injuries are tough to detect, diagnose and treat, unlike elbow injuries, which are usually more obviously painful and see higher successful surgery rates. Pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery, which repairs ligament damage in the elbow, almost always make it back to the majors throwing harder and more effectively than before they got hurt.
People who tear their labrum are not always as lucky. Mark Mulder said on Baseball Tonight last week that 20% of players who tear their labrum don’t make it back to the big leagues. Shoulders are trickier than elbows, and there is a lot more room for error when repairing one. You could be going along throwing fine, when one day, usually for no particular reason other than overuse, your labrum will rip, sending a terse shot of pain shooting through your shoulder that will sideline you for months. Except you don’t know it until the next morning. You go to sleep thinking nothing of the slight hiccup that afternoon. “Tendentious, at worst,” they tell you. “Just ice it.”
So you ice it that night and drift away to sleep, knowing you have to get up at whatever time tomorrow for practice or work or whatever the professionals call it. You have to get up tomorrow for baseball. You’re going to throw and it’s going to feel fine, and if you’re Michael Pineda, the ball’s going to leave your hand at about 95 mph.
But when your alarm clock rings and you go to hit the snooze button, something strange happens. First of all, you don’t remember the clock being so far away. You have to reach farther for it than usual, and it’s not easy. Then, just as you almost get there, a shock wave shoots into your shoulder, like it got struck by lightning. You drop your arm in surprise and pain, and the alarm keeps going.
Now you’re scared. You tell your coaches and they move up the MRI. You go to the doctors and they make you lay down in a tunnel just barely big enough to fit you for a half hour, where you stare at the ceiling just inches from your face while a jackhammer (why? You don’t know) rattles away in your ears. Claustrophobes beware. They barely even let you wiggle your toes when you’re in those things.
MRIs aren’t like X-Rays. After you get an X-Ray, you only have to sweat out the results for a few minutes in the waiting room before the white-coat shows you your broken pinky on the projector screen. They’re scary in the way pregnancy tests are – because of their timeliness and accuracy. MRIs operate more like blood work, making you wait for a follow up days after you’ve peed into the cup.
You wait the new week out in the trainer’s room, applying ice and electric stimulation to your arm. It feels great. You’re not throwing, but nothing feels out of the ordinary. You can open the door, hold the X-Box controller and complete your newly formed handshake with Nick Swisher easily. Just like the old days.
It’s finally time for your appointment with the surgeon who is reading the MRI. If you’re a normal person, you probably don’t get called in until 45 minutes after your scheduled time, and then sit in the empty clinic room by yourself for another hour waiting on the damn guy. But Michael Pineda isn’t a normal person. Joe Girardi’s probably holding his hand all the way until his 6’7, 265 frame rips the wax paper on the exam table. It’s at this point when Girardi takes his cell of out his pocket, just in case the Doc comes in with bad news and he’s got to bring in the lefty.
“Hey Mike, how are we today?” the doctor asks in an I-have-to-make-it-seem-like-I-really-care-about-all-of-my-patients-but-I’ve-been-here-since-7:30-and-I’m-so-f***ing-tired-that-I-just-want-to-go-home kind of way.
“Okay, okay. Hasn’t been hurting much, so looking for good news.”
Then Doc opens a folder – your all-important “chart”, you realize – and rifles through it for what seems like longer than it should be if he really knew what was wrong with your arm.
“We found a tear,” he finally says, shoving a piece of paper in your face with pictures on it. The snapshots are neatly organized in three rows of four; their arrangement is the only thing bringing the slightest sense of order to your mind, which is spinning in a hundred different directions.
“Here, you see? There is it again,” he says, pointing to the photos. Girardi’s halfway out the door, already on the phone with bullpen coach Mike Harkey. The truth is that you don’t see, because to you each picture looks like different angles of the inside of a cheesecake, but you say you do because he’s the doctor. He explains to you what your labrum even is, where the tear is and the size of it, and then says you’re going to need surgery. You’re pissed. You don’t want to talk to anybody and you don’t want surgery. All you want is to go back to Seattle and dominate the A’s.
Having heard the news from Skip, some of your new teammates start texting you. First of course is Derek, followed by Tex and CC, Gardner, Swish and then finally, twelve hours later, A-Rod. You only write back Jete, figuring he’d know exactly what to say to make you feel better. “Do what you gotta do Pinny and do it as best as you can. You’re going to get through this and come back better than ever. I’ll make sure they give you a ring when we lock up #28.” You knew it.
A few days later you have surgery. They strap you up in a one-sided robe, hairnet and slipper-socks and wheel you into the operating room. They put a device that looks like a jockstrap over your nose and tell you to count down from ten.
You wake up from an empty sleep about three hours later, groggy and numb. You can’t feel your arm and you don’t know where you are. On the ride home the mixture of opiates and a moving car start getting to you head, and you vomit in a plastic bag. It’s not a clean spew, and so you drool.
That night you make sure to take your pain pills or else it’ll feel like Jigsaw is taking a hacksaw to your shoulder. You sleep on your left side because you have to make sure your sling doesn’t touch the bed.
Rehab starts immediately. Within three days you’re in a physical therapy facility, meeting your therapist. His name is Chris or something. This guy will be around for the next six months, so you better like him. We’re only going to do some stretching on the first day, Chris tells you. You lay down on a training table and he puts one hand on your shoulder and another on your wrist. He starts to lift your arm slowly. 30 degrees, 45 degrees – nice, nice, he says. At 60 degrees you let out a short, low gasp, because your arm feels like it’s cracking in half. Okay, he says. That’s enough for today.
You’re back there for two hour sessions three times a week, riding an arm bike, squeezing a stress ball and getting stretched out by Chris. After six weeks you’re allowed to take off your sling, and Chris upgrades from squeeze balls to resistance bands. The plastic bands are tied to the wall and can be used for dozens of different exercises. They’re organized by color based on difficulty and are ordered from weakest to strongest: green, yellow, red, blue, black. You’re on green. Chris has you doing internal rotation, external rotation and wall reaches. It takes you three weeks to get to yellow.
In the meantime, you’re a cripple. You can’t drive, wave or even change the channel with your right arm. Showering is a major challenge. Acne starts popping up all over your back where you arm can’t reach anymore, and you kind of smell.
It’s three months post-op and you’re only halfway there. Lifting your shirt over your head doesn’t make you quiver in pain anymore, but your shoulder feels weak constantly. It’s like your shoulder’s been hollowed out and there’s no meat left in there. You can’t make a bicep without your arm developing tremors.
Chris ups the anti. You’re four months post-op and the finish line is in sight. Chris says we can start doing pushups. You don’t think you’re ready, so Chris puts you on a dumbbell bar angled 45 degrees off the ground and tells you to do pushups on that. You’re out of breath after ten, and your shoulder is killing you. Chris says the pain is normal and that we need to fight through it. It’ll be another month until you start doing pushups on the ground, but by then you can do the three sets of ten the sheet says.
Around the time you start doing pushups on the floor, Chris that he’s going to start incorporating some baseball activities into your regime. He tells you to kneel on the floor put your right arm up. From there, he starts tossing lacrosse balls from over your shoulder, telling you to catch them, bring them down to your hip, and then throw them backwards back to him. It’s tiring, but it’s also the most fun thing you’ve done in five months.
You know everyone at the physical therapy facility, from the secretaries (creepy middle-aged British guy, bodacious purple-hair lady, gay black dude, et al) to the therapists (Bald Jeff, who owns the place and never goes a day without telling someone how he goes to Mardi Gras every year, Mustache Andy, the unassuming TA who you call A-Dog and Jackie, who knows she’s the hottest one there and makes sure everyone else knows it to) to the patients, who all have at least forty years on you. They’re nice people, but come on, you just can’t wait to be done with this. For five and a half months your pesky right shoulder has controlled, dominated and screwed with your life, and you want some of that control back. And getting out of here is the only way to do that.
Chris says that you should start having a light catch. A catch! You feel like you’ve made it. After the next session, he says you and your throwing partner should start stretching it out more, but only if it feels good. It feels really good. As your arm improves, you start getting into a better mood. You get Chris’ phone number and you text him after every catch. He’s even thinking about inviting you to a Yankee game, but then he realizes you’re Michael Pineda already. Stupid, stupid, he thinks to himself.
You’ve been back in the dugout for a few weeks now. You don’t travel with the guys, so you really want them to win the ALDS at home so you can party in the clubhouse, even if it’s more of a celebration of your own progress than anything else. Derek takes Verlander 315 feet-deep to right to lead off Game 5, Mo shuts the door and before you know it you’re popping bottles with Andy Pettitte, who took your spot in the rotation. The next day the team plane leaves for Texas.
While the rest of the guys set sail for Arlington, you’re back at the facility, putting the finishing touches on your rehab. You’re almost allowed to throw light bullpens by now, and Chris says your shoulder is structurally sound. It’s been a long journey, and it’s felt like it.
Things don’t make you laugh like they used to. You’ve been through pain, disappointment and heartache. People say what doesn’t kill you make you stronger, and you realize that this is only partially true. Your shoulder isn’t stronger than it used to be, it’s more like only almost the same. And as for you, you feel older. You’ve been broken and put back together, and it doesn’t necessarily make you feel stronger. It really just makes you constantly worried that you’ll break again.