Ex-Oriole Habyan comes back from injury to shoulder Yankees' bullpen burden

June 20, 1992|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

When John Habyan recalls the freak shoulder injury that nearly destroyed his pitching career in 1989, he doesn't look back in anger.

He looks back in relief. Literally.

That's because the injury likely saved his pitching career, and, at the least, defined it.

"It was like a blessing in disguise," said Habyan, 28, among the first of the New York Yankees to arrive at Camden Yards for last night's game against the Orioles.

"I had to learn to pitch when I came back because I didn't have good velocity."

On Jan. 6, 1989, as he was sledding down a snow-covered hill behind his Cockeysville apartment, Habyan hit a mound of snow, was thrown 10 feet in the air, and came down heavily on his right shoulder.

The damage was severe: a third-degree separation. The ligaments were torn completely in half. "It was a hockey injury, a football injury," Habyan said. "The doctors didn't know of any baseball player who had had it."

He was a highly regarded prospect with the Orioles at the time, having spent parts of four seasons with them. But four weeks after coming off rehabilitation to pitch for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, he was traded to the Yankees for outfielder Stan Jefferson.

It was inconsequential at the time, a trade of minor-leaguers. And while Jefferson is long gone from the Orioles organization, Habyan quietly has emerged as one of the Yankees' most effective relievers. He has a 3-1 record with a 1.78 ERA in a team-high 26 games, and hasn't allowed a home run in 35 1/3 innings.

"We're tickled to death with John," Yankees pitching coach Mark Connor said. "He was a find for us. It was a minor transaction, and our minor-league people rehabbed him.

"Most guys who have major surgery never quite get back to where they were. Guys have to make adjustments."

Habyan did. With the Orioles, he was simply a power pitcher. With the Yankees, he's still a power pitcher, but with a 90-mph sinker and a good slider.

"If I didn't have the sledding accident . . . I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now," he said. "If you looked at a film of me from 1987 and look at me now, I'm a totally different pitcher -- my windup, from the stretch, everything."

When Habyan came back from the surgery, his velocity had dropped from 90 mph to the low 80s. It wasn't until 18 months after the operation -- in July 1990 -- that Habyan's velocity returned. In the interim, he learned to pitch.

Among those he credits with assisting his comeback is Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman, then a minor-league pitching instructor.

"It seemed like I was stuck, and Dick Bosman worked with me," Habyan said. "He got me to try some things. And I tried a lot of things."

He had a 3.21 ERA for Columbus in 1990. Last year, he made the Yankees roster as a middle reliever, was successful and soon promoted to late-inning setup man. He did the job with distinction: a 4-2 record and 2.30 ERA in 66 appearances.

Habyan has the same role this season, although there has been some speculation about making him a starter again. He resists that.

"I like the role I have here," he said. "I have no aspirations [to start]."

Habyan still has Baltimore roots. He met his wife, Bonnie, in 1987 when she worked in the Orioles public relations department. They married last October and moved into a new home in Bel Air.

Of the Orioles, he said: "I have a lot of close friends over there. I keep my head down when I'm on the mound so I don't look at anybody in the eye . . . and laugh."

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