It can happen to anyone

Sean Shapiro and Sean Shapiro

Brandon McFarland has swung a bat his whole life. In fact over the last three seasons at Bowling Green the senior has driven in 41 runs and hit .290 during his collegiate career. All this considered, McFarland never expected a single swing to be the end of his 2009 season. ‘I’ve always had elbow pain, because I was a pitcher in high school,’ McFarland said. ‘I was hitting off the tee, and it just went.’ During the swing, McFarland tore his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), an injury that has also affected three of his Falcon teammates. In addition to McFarland, fellow senior Kevin Leady is undergoing the same process while teammates Patrick Martin and Tyler Elkins missed the 2008 season with the same injury. More commonly known as Tommy John surgery, damage to the UCL used to be a career ending injury to athletes. John, a former pitcher for several Major League Baseball teams, was the first player to successfully to return from an UCL injury 18 months after his surgery in 1974. It’s a surgery that has become quite common in baseball players, especially pitchers, and requires the ligament to be replaced by a tendon from another part of the body, usually a hamstring or forearm. ‘You’re taking the ligament that is there and putting a tendon in its place,’ said Dr. Tim Kremcheck, the surgeon who performed both McFarland’s and Leady’s surgeries. ‘Over an extended period of time, the tendon will become a ligament.’ It’s an injury that is usually attributed to the high repetition of a pitcher’s throwing motion and has become more common in younger players because of a lack of rest between pitching days. ‘It’s typically a throwing injury due to fatigue the elbow becomes strained and then one event causes it to tear,’ said Kremcheck. While it was swinging a bat for McFarland, Leady’s and Martin’s elbow were pushed to the edge simply by throwing in the bullpen. ‘One day I threw 13 pitches, and I felt my arm tightening in the back of my elbow,’ Leady said. After his arm continued to tighten up, Leady went to Dr. Kremcheck and found out he would have to miss his senior season. Unlike in the early days of the surgery, athletes can now return to the field in anywhere from six to 12 months time depending on the player’s position. After surgery, the elbow is slowly adjusted until the athlete can straighten their arm. Once this is accomplished, athletes move on to a position specific training regiment. Leady has just started his throwing program, which includes playing catch three times a week. While McFarland is about five weeks into his hitting program, and three months into his own throwing program. According to McFarland, the recovery process has been easier having Elkins and Martin helping him through an injury they overcame. Martin remembers the recovery being even more difficult since he was prohibited from doing something he had been doing all along, playing baseball. ‘You want to be back doing things you were doing your whole life,’ Martin said. ‘Sometimes you get discouraged. Even sleeping in the brace is very difficult.’ Despite the difficult recovery, Martin and Elkins have had successful 2009 seasons, both hitting well over .300 and combining to drive in 29 runs. While the two players have successfully recovered from the surgery, the number of athletes to injure the UCL has been frustrating for coach Danny Schmitz. ‘It’s frustrating because we treat our kids well here,’ Schmitz said. ‘We’ve always put a strong emphasis on pitch counts and protecting our pitchers’ arms.’ According to Schmitz, his teams have always been near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference in pitches thrown by starters, something he has prided himself on in his 19 years as coach. Luckily for Schmitz, he will have both Leady and McFarland back for the 2010 season since both will receive medical red shirts after undergoing the surgery.