Aron does seem unscarred by Williamsport. He and his teammates did come home national champs and local heroes, after all. The glorious winning streak of 1987 had ended with a nightmare, but Smoke Garcia still has his Little League World Series cap, his 1987 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS T-shirt, his dad, his mom and—after surgery—his strong right arm.
"His arm was an accident waiting to happen," says orthopedic surgeon Alan Beyer, who rebuilt Aron's elbow in December. "When I got in there, I found chronic stress changes in the growth plate—the result of his repeatedly placing a lot of stress on that part of his arm. That final little toss of a handball was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
Beyer says Aran's elbow injury was similar to one suffered by major leaguer Tommy John in 1974 but easier to fix. John, whose growth plates had long since matured, tore the medial collateral ligament in his elbow. To replace the ligament, sports surgeon Frank Jobe transplanted the palmaris longus tendon from John's right wrist to his left elbow. In Aran's case, the medial collateral ligament was stronger than the growth plate, so the ligament pulled the growth plate off the bone. Beyer, who had a fellowship with Jobe in 1981-82, faced a simpler operation than the one Jobe performed on John. "I exposed the fracture site in Aran's elbow," says Beyer, "cleaned up some of the scarified, sclerosed bone, reattached the piece that had been pulled off, fixed it to its normal site with a screw and closed him up."
Beyer says Aron may actually benefit from his injury. The growth plates in a boy's arm normally fuse when he is 16 or 17. Aran's operation will accelerate the fusion of the growth plate in his elbow; his growth plate will fuse by the time he is 15. Aran's arm, like the rest of him, will grow up fast.
What makes a boy's elbow snap? Conventional wisdom blames the curveball—destroyer of young arms. Bob and pitching coach Colbert take pains to point out that Aron throws a "dropball," not a curve. "Contrary to what Jim Palmer says, Aron does not throw a curve," says Colbert. "He throws a drop—all wrist, straight over the top, with no twist of the arm. It's twisting the arm that causes trouble."
Curve or drop, it makes no difference, according to Beyer. "Everybody says youngsters shouldn't throw curveballs," he says. "I think that's overstating the case. Dr. Jobe has done studies that show exactly what forces are placed on the elbow during the pitching motion. These studies show that a properly thrown curveball puts no more stress on the arm than a well-thrown fastball. The important thing is, How many pitches is a youngster throwing? Last year, with all the extra games, Aron threw more than he was used to, and that placed a lot of stress on his elbow. In a way, he's lucky the accident happened, because in a few months he'll be at least as good as he ever was. Last year his arm was an impending disaster."
At the end of February, Aron met Colbert for his first post-op throwing session. Behind them a bulldozer cleared the infield at Irvine's Orchard Park, laying groundwork for a new baseball season. "I don't want you showing off," Colbert said.
"O.K., O.K.," said Smoke.
They began with slow tosses. Aron felt strong. He was thrilled to be throwing again. Before long he was popping Colbert's mitt with his fastball. Colbert scolded him but couldn't keep from smiling. "The Smoke is back!" he said.
Aron wanted to try his drop. Just a couple, his coach said. The first spun and stayed up, but the second broke straight down, skipped past Colbert and bounded to the parking lot. Aron tipped his cap.