Wood and his 1998 pitching coach, Phil Regan (now with the Cleveland Indians), acknowledge that last season he was not square to the batter when he released the ball; he threw across his body, which is thought by some to increase the strain on an arm. In fact, Wood says he was ministering to this mechanical "sin" in spring training when his elbow snapped.
Renowned former pitching coach Tom House believes Wood was trying to fix something that didn't need to be fixed. "There's nothing wrong necessarily with throwing across your body," says House, who threw in the majors for eight years, earned an M.A in exercise physiology and was a minor league instructor for the Houston Astros and the San Diego Padres and pitching coach for the Texas Rangers. "Nolan Ryan threw across his body," House says. "Was he wrong?"
Using; three-dimensional computer models of Wood's delivery generated by House's company, Bio-Kinetics, Inc., which specializes in analyzing the movements of athletes, House argues that Wood was much better mechanically than he's been cracked up to be. It's a fallacy to think that good pitching deliveries are "all pretty and smooth," says House. "For example, Billy Swift and Kirk McCaskill [who were often injured and are no longer pitching] looked unbelievably efficient, but when you got them on the computer, they were really not efficient."
House says that Wood, on the other hand, was a model of efficiency. He also dismisses contentions that the Cubs overused Wood. House thinks it's more likely that the harm to Wood's arm was done in adolescence, when he was subjecting it to stresses that it was physically unable to endure.
That's just one man's opinion, albeit one backed up by scientific research. There are 30 pitching coaches in the major leagues, which is to say, there are 30 opinions on how best to handle young pitchers. "Too many restrictions are being put on pitchers early in their careers," says Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "They're not being allowed to throw much, and when they do throw, they throw as hard as they can—as opposed to throwing a lot but not throwing as hard as they can. It's like training for a marathon: You should run a little bit all the time." The Arizona Diamondbacks, in contrast, are sticklers about pitch counts. Nevertheless, says Arizona pitching coach Mark Connor, whose minor league career ended in 1972 with a tear of the rotator cuff, a career killer at the time, "nobody knows exactly what causes a pitcher to get hurt. I've seen guys with great mechanics get hurt; I've seen guys with poor mechanics never get hurt."
In mid-July, Wood began throwing again, although he was restricted to tosses of less than 45 feet. He plays catch every other day as he travels with the Cubs and has gradually worked up to tosses of 90 feet. While his teammates are on the field preparing for a game, he is usually in the clubhouse, exercising and lifting weights with the goal of coming back early next season. He is slimmer and stronger than he was during his record-setting rookie year. "I'm hoping to be throwing off the mound in mid-to late-November," Wood says. "The biggest test will be when I start to throw breaking stuff."
Wood is used to dictating the terms in a baseball game, but he won't be able to do that in this situation. He might turn out to be as good as he was last year, or he might be even better. Or, through no fault of his or his doctor's, Wood may never blow another fastball past a major league hitter. There is no telling how his recovery will play out.
Every now and then Wood watches the videotape of his fifth big league start, in May of last year, when he struck out those 20 Astros, walked none and gave up one hit on a questionable scorer's decision. The Astros hit just two balls out of the infield. Wood twice broke the 100 mph barrier. He fanned the first five batters he faced, and eight of the last nine. (For the record, he threw 122 pitches.) He watches with a remote control in hand, replaying certain pitches, savoring the sight of his curve moving like a steel ball rolling in a roulette wheel. "It doesn't seem like it's me out there," Wood says. "That's why I don't watch it too often. I start getting all excited and wanting to get back right away. But I'm lucky. I'll still be just 22 when I come back. And I will be back the same as I was."
Wood may have no idea of the troubles lurking ahead. "He's naive enough, he'll just get through this," Andrews says, laughing.
2. THE PATIENT