WHEN HIS RIGHT ELBOW SNAPPED, ARON GARCIA HEARD A POP. Then came waves of pain in an arm that a few months earlier had struck out 102 batters in 47 innings. "I was really scared," he said. "My arm just hung there."
Last summer Aron Garcia pitched on ABC's Wide World of Sports, hit a home run on ESPN, led his team to a national championship and heard Jim Palmer pay him the ultimate compliment—the three-time Cy Young Award winner compared Garcia's arm to his own. Now the young pitcher had fractured the growth plate at the end of his humerus, the long bone of the upper arm. Growth plates are the mortar of growing bones; in kids, they are still fragile. When he picked up a handball on Dec, 4 and tossed it to a friend, the muscles and ligaments of Garcia's elbow held firm and the growth plate snapped.
"I thought my career was over," he said.
The next day, Aron Garcia went under the knife. He had just turned 13.
Aron's career started early. When he was three, he was running down errant throws while his father, Bob, and older brother, Bobby, played catch in the backyard of their Long Beach, Calif., home. "Aron was a competitor from the start," says his dad. "He'd track down anything."
Bob was determined to give his two sons a chance to play pro ball—a chance their dad never had. Although he grew up poor in a Long Beach barrio where gang warfare was career option No. 1, Bob was, until recently, a senior vice-president of Executive Savings and Loan in Marina del Rey. As a strapping six-foot teenager, he had earned a reputation as a fighter—and the nickname Gunner—for his street exploits. Turning to sports in high school, he was an outstanding football and baseball player. Then came 11 months of combat in Vietnam, where he won the Silver Star. His citation for the medal reads: "Despite the continuing barrage of insurgent small arms fire directed at him, he concentrated his fire upon the mortar position, silenced the mortar, killed the insurgent mortar team and relieved his company from a most precarious position. His outstanding courage undoubtedly saved the lives of many." Bob returned from Vietnam without a scratch—and promptly shattered his left leg in a motorcycle crash.
"The doctors wanted to take my leg," he recalls. "I told them no way. So they did what they could to put it back together. They said that I would never walk right again. I walked, but my playing days were finished."
Ten operations over the course of the next eight years repaired Bob's leg but left it three inches shorter than it had been before the crash. So the doctors shortened his right leg. Bob was now 5'9". And his right knee was three inches higher than his left.
He turned to coaching. He led ragtag teams of underprivileged kids to Long Beach Parks Department championships in baseball, basketball, football and track, and in 1972 he married his high school sweetheart, Susie Sear. Soon Bob had two boys of his own to coach.
In 1979 the Garcias moved to pristine Irvine, Calif. Aron, their second son, grew up fast. By the time he was 10 he had a mitt-popping fastball. A three-sport grade school star, he reserved his real love for baseball. While other kids sat in front of the TV watching Masters of the Universe, Aron practiced in the yard with his dad, refining his graceful pitching motion, mastering a breaking ball. He found that if he held the ball along the seams and snapped his wrist, he could make the pitch dive.