Mike Steele was a three-time minor league all-star before Tommy John surgery put his pitching career on hold.
A growing number of pitchers face the surgery — which repairs ligament damage in the elbow — as a result of overuse and poor technique, according to Major League Baseball’s Pitch Smart program. The program aims to reduce pitcher injuries, particularly among youth players.
“A lot of my past teammates and former players had the Tommy John surgery,” said Steele, a Michigan State University assistant coach for the 2006 and 2007 seasons, who had the surgery in February 2002 while playing for the Detroit Tigers.
“Especially nowadays when you get a lot of kids who haven’t trained a lot. They just throw too much. They throw all year round. These guys come in hurt and you don’t know that they’re going to blow out, but eventually they do blow out. It’s just part of the game now.”
A study of national insurance records showed that between 2007 and 2011, the number of Tommy John surgeries increased about 4 percent each year overall, according to the Pitch Smart program. Nine percent of the surgeries each year are on high school age pitchers.
The surgery is named after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, who became the first athlete to successfully undergo it in 1974.
Steele said he “didn’t take as good care of my body as I should of. I didn’t listen to it well enough. I just didn’t take care of it very well.
“I got promoted halfway through the season in 2001 and I get asked ‘Can you throw?’ ‘Can you pitch?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, of course, you know? Let’s go!’ So I probably should have took a couple of those off. I went to go play some winter ball in Australia and I get over there and I couldn’t even throw.”
Symptoms of the injury include as soreness and swelling on the inside of the elbow, numbness and tingling along the arm and elbow joint instability, according to William E. Prentice’s book, Principles of Athletic Training.
Preventative treatments include rest, ice, compression and elevation, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Anti-inflammatory drugs also can reduce swelling and soreness, and light exercises can help maintain stability and full range of motion.
Fifteen percent of minor league pitchers as well as 25 percent of active major league pitchers have had the Tommy John surgery, according to a study by Dr. Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute and adviser to Little League, USA Baseball and Major League Baseball, and Stan Conte of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
While Tommy John surgery has a high success rate, 15 percent of pitchers aren’t able to return to play post-surgery. Not everyone gets their velocity back and unless players carry out rehab properly, they could have a recurrence of the injury.
Steele spent the next season trying to rehab.
“I didn’t come back from the surgery very well, I wasn’t the same,” Steele said. “I probably wasn’t rehabbed or I didn’t do the rehab as good as I could have.
“I wasn’t nervous about if I was going to hurt it again. When I first got back I wasn’t sure where the ball was going. That was the big deal.”
Steele, a native of Midland, Michigan, went to St. Clair County Community College his freshman year and Grand Rapids Community College his sophomore year. He transferred to Central Michigan University, where he played collegiate baseball. He was a Junior College All-American as a pitcher and outfielder and an All-MAC Second Team pitcher at CMU before being drafted in the 29th round by the Detroit Tigers.
“When I ended up going to being a coach in the minor leagues with the Pirates, when we found out guys were going to have surgery, one of the big things I’d try to get them to do was to learn something new,” Steele said. “For example, cooking, playing guitar, just come up with something to do because young alpha male athletes that get told they’re not going to be able to play for a year, they end up doing reckless stuff.”