1. THE PHENOM
Kerry Wood's cherished right arm looks as if it has been in a farm-machine accident. The soft underside of the forearm has three scars laid down like railroad ties, and a long jagged smile has been carved into the elbow. "I haven't felt any pain," insists the Chicago Cubs' 1998 Rookie of the Year pitcher as he absentmindedly runs the fingertips of his left hand up and down his forearm.
After striking out 20 Houston Astros early last season, tying the major league nine-inning record, the 6'5" Wood seemed ready to emulate fellow Texans Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan and become the most intimidating pitcher of his generation. If he is to do so, he must now navigate a tortuous surgical detour.
On the morning of March 14, Wood was alarmed to discover that he could not straighten his right elbow. Sometime the previous afternoon, while pitching briefly in his first spring training outing, the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow—which holds the upper and lower arm bones together—snapped like a rope frayed by too many tug-of-wars. Twenty-five days later, after the swelling subsided, Wood was put to sleep by an anesthesiologist in a hospital in Birmingham, and Dr. James R. Andrews made three short incisions across Wood's right forearm in order to detach and remove a band of connective tissue called the palmaris longus tendon. ("I don't even feel it missing," says Wood, spitting tobacco juice into the paper cup in his right hand.) The tendon was about four times longer than the ulnar collateral ligament it was replacing, so Andrews was able to loop it back and forth through holes he'd drilled in Wood's elbow, in effect tying down a new connection thicker and stronger than the original. Thus did Wood join the ranks of pitchers who have undergone what is known as Tommy John surgery, named for the Los Angeles Dodgers lefthander who in 1974 blazed the trail for scores of pitchers who have recovered from what had once been career-snuffing injuries to the elbow.
Wood is the most recent high-profile victim in an ongoing epidemic of injuries to pitchers' arms. As of late June an astounding 120 hurlers—close to one third of all pitchers with major league contracts—had undergone some kind of surgery on their throwing arms since turning pro. Whether more pitchers are being hurt than ever before is debatable, but there is no doubt that more are having surgery and recovering from serious injuries. Until Dr. Frank Jobe came along and fixed John's elbow, a pitcher with a bum arm was dismissed as unsentimentally as a broken-down racehorse. And anyway, the minor leagues were teeming with fresh arms. The addition of six expansion teams, however, has heavily diluted the pool of pitching talent, so every decent arm is precious and worth saving.
Why did Wood break down just as his career was starting? The answer depends upon whom you're asking. When Andrews, like a coroner performing an autopsy, sliced open Wood's elbow and looked inside, he could see that the ligament, just a few centimeters long, had suffered little tears and abrasions over the years and had tried in vain to heal itself before giving out. Critics point out that the Cubs let Wood throw more than 110 pitches 13 times last season, including one span in which he threw at least 121 pitches four times in five starts. The implication is that the Cubs gave Wood more work than his young arm could handle.
The Cubs deny they overworked their young star. If anything, they say, Wood—who was once sidelined in high school with elbow problems—was damaged goods when they signed him. "I hurt my elbow when I was in high school, after my freshman year, and I didn't pitch for three months," Wood says. "After that I went from the low 80s up to about 90 miles per hour."
"I know I'll be criticized for this, but I feel strongly that we're [drafting] a lot of pitchers who have been absolutely abused," Cubs pitching coach Marty DeMerritt says. "Look at the College World Series: A kid throws 150 pitches or more [in a game], because everything is about winning and not about what's good for the player." Two days after picking Wood fourth in the 1995 draft, the Cubs watched in horror as the 17-year-old was asked to pitch in both ends of a doubleheader—throwing an alarming 175 pitches—for Grand Prairie High in the quarterfinals of the Texas state tournament.
All the experts agree on one point: Pitchers no longer grow up throwing the ball every day and building up their arms naturally. Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan wonders if pitchers are breaking down simply because baseball no longer is truly the national pastime. "A lot of these kids come into pro baseball never having played every day," Duncan says. You can see it for yourself in most neighborhoods: the absence of the old-fashioned sandlot game. When a power pitcher makes it to the major leagues, he is expected to live up to the standards of resiliency set almost a century ago by Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, whose arms had developed a marathoner's endurance because of the players' undistracted love of the game. Today's young pitchers usually have not made the same daily commitment. Naturally they are more fragile.
An even murkier element of Wood's pathology is his pitching motion. "When I saw his delivery, I said, 'This guy is going to break down,' " Chicago White Sox pitching coach Nardi Contreras says. "If he had been pitching like that his whole life, it was just a matter of time." The whirligig of a pitcher's arms and legs is known as his mechanics, which suggests that Wood is a machine that can be broken down and analyzed like a stock car engine. In truth no one can agree on the proper mechanics for a pitcher.