Trying to mend a tough break

Baseball: After making the climb from Glen Burnie High to the major leagues, Tony Saunders suffered a devastating arm injury. Now the Devil Rays pitcher is in rehabilitation, hoping to save his career.

September 02, 1999|By John Steadman | John Steadman,SUN COLUMNIST

No heavy-duty bonus to sign. Not even enough money to buy a secondhand car or promises of a partially paid college education. Merely an opportunity. That's what Tony Saunders wanted if only a long-shot chance to prove his ability.

He believed in himself if others didn't. To be placed in the ever-demanding arena of baseball was all he asked. And then to see what would happen -- the painful lot that befell him -- after he earned his way to the major leagues as a gifted left-handed pitcher of unlimited promise, became a shock of sudden despair.

Saunders will never forget the scenario: a moment when part of his world fell in as he collapsed with a pain he never realized could be so traumatic, almost paralyzing. Teammates, manager, coaches and trainers came running to his side.

Before their eyes, they had witnessed Saunders' arm "exploding." It was May 26, Tropicana Field, third inning and a 3-3 tie between his Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Texas Rangers.

He had just thrown a 3-1 changeup to Juan Gonzalez. Now he was coming back with a straight fastball.

"There was no warning," he said. "When I released the pitch, I knew in an instant what happened. It flashed through my mind. I knew my arm was broken. The injury was nothing like I could imagine. I was suffering. My arm just dangled. As I went into my delivery, I was as relaxed as I wanted to be. The overwhelming pain that followed dropped me to the ground. I wouldn't wish that kind of injury on anybody."

Tony Saunders is 25, married to his teen-age sweetheart from Glen Burnie High School, the former Joyce Dickerson, and they are parents of a 2-year-old girl, Samantha. His future, until that ballpark crisis, was bright and filled with lofty dreams of what might come later.

Now, he's in rehabilitation at Kernan Hospital. Thrice weekly, Saunders is under the care and supervision of physical therapist director William Neill and his assistant, John Mahoney, for massage, treatment and mild exercise.

Neill, who has treated Hall of Fame athletes in all sports, as well as former President Jimmy Carter, offers a confident prophecy. "I think there is every reason to believe he will pitch again." But, of course, there's much more work to do between patient and therapist.

His shoulder range is slowly coming back to an almost full and easy rotation. Two other areas also are being dealt with in a complex program of hoped-for recovery. There's a mid-shaft fracture of the humerus (the bone between the shoulder and the elbow) and a severe contusion of the radial nerve, which controls muscles in the forearm that extend to the wrist and hand. Return of nerve function is vital, and to achieve the objective is a methodical process that demands time and delicate care.

"He's been working with Dr. Moorman, [Claude T. Moorman, director of sports medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center] and they're real, real happy with the way the fracture has healed," said Devil Rays trainer Jamie Reed, formerly the Orioles' assistant trainer. "It'll probably be another six to eight weeks before he has full function of all the muscles in his forearm and hand. At that point, you get real aggressive with the rehab.

"This was a pretty dramatic injury. You have to be fair to Tony and take it one step at a time. You set short-term goals, not long-term. To say he'll be throwing off a mound by December or January would be premature. Are we optimistic? Certainly."

Doctors aren't entirely sure what caused the arm to "explode." It's not something they see with frequency, and they don't read of similar case histories in medical journals. There's even a belief, without confirmation, that Saunders became so strong in his upper torso, including back, neck, shoulders and biceps, that the arm wasn't able to tolerate the power his strength created.

The weakest point in the arm structure, according to Neill and Mahoney, is between the shoulder and elbow. That's what came apart. Saunders mentions there have been nine similarly documented accidents to pitchers in the past 20 years and, strangely enough, all were left-handers. Why? Dr. James Andrews, the prominent orthopedic surgeon who cares for the Devil Rays, explained to Saunders that left-handed people "have more external rotation" when they are in a throwing motion.

"It's still a mystery," Saunders said. "Two other good doctors in Tampa told me they had never seen anything like this before."

After Saunders, endowed with a smile and a personality that would light up a coal mine at midnight, was hurt, the sympathies of the country, even the world, were directed to him.

"I got mail from all over," he said. "Fans wrote to tell me of their own physical problems and how they fought back. I heard from Tom Browning, who had the same injury happen to him. My manager, Larry Rothschild, was then Tom's pitching coach in Cincinnati when it happened. How do you like that for irony?

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