Timetable elbowed aside

Orioles reliever Jason Grimsley has made a remarkably rapid recovery from Tommy John surgery, returning him to the sport that has a hold on him but has pained him so.

July 20, 2005|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The scar creeps down Jason Grimsley's right arm, like a baseball's seams gone straight. Seven inches of stitches tell the tale of an elbow surgically raised from the dead.

Grimsley waggled his money arm, albeit gingerly, as if worried the wing would fall off and he would wake from a dream that has left the Orioles' reliever to pitch pain-free for the first time in seven years.

He knows he is an anomaly: Grimsley's may be the quickest comeback ever to the majors for a pitcher after elbow ligament reconstruction, commonly known as Tommy John surgery. John, a left-hander, won 288 games, more than half of them after the pioneering procedure in 1974 that bears his name.

Most recoveries from Tommy John surgery take 11 months minimum. Grimsley, who was activated Thursday, has rushed back in nine.

Risks be damned, he said.

"I know the end is near," said the 14-year-veteran, who turns 38 next month. "But this is, like, my second chance. Nobody loves going out there more than me. There's a part of you that plays this game that never grows up.

"Remember Field of Dreams? Walking out there again between those white lines, and chasing that dream -- that's what I want to feel.

"Even if I were to blow my arm out right away, all the rehabilitation would have been worth it."

Perish that thought, say the Orioles, who need Grimsley's 89-mph sinker to buoy their embattled bullpen in the last three months of a pennant race. Though his career numbers are middling (40-54, 4.74 ERA), his work ethic is unparalleled. Grimsley has appeared in at least 70 games in each of the previous four years.

Positive sinking

His post-op trial was a three-week stint at Double-A Bowie, where Grimsley wowed the staff. When tamed, his sinker piles up outs. His two World Series rings with the New York Yankees prove it.

Former Yankee Chuck Knoblauch said hacking at Grimsley's sinker was "like trying to hit a shot put." The Toronto Blue Jays' Gregg Zaun said he would as soon swing at a bowling ball.

Surgery has not dulled Grimsley's signature pitch, Bowie manager Don Werner said.

"The thing looks like a spitball," said Werner, a former catcher. "Hitters can't get a bead on it."

Never mind that Grimsley spent his time in Bowie mowing down minor leaguers. "The stuff he's throwing works at any level," Werner said.

In his first two appearances since being activated, Grimsley has pitched 1 1/3 innings, yielding one earned run in his second game.

Grimsley's rapid comeback has surprised his surgeon, Dr. Tim Kremchek, who predicted a longer rehab after repairing that wreck of an elbow in October.

How bad was the injury?

"Jason's [ulnar collateral] ligament had literally ripped and peeled off the bone. It was torn in multiple spots and looked like Swiss cheese," the surgeon said.

Kremchek, medical director for the Cincinnati Reds, performs Tommy John surgery more than 100 times a year on ballplayers of all ages, but rarely one as old as Grimsley.

"Jason is a bulldog who still wanted to pitch," Kremchek said. "Sure, he's taking a chance, coming back so soon. These are uncharted waters. But if anyone is going to push the envelope, it's him."

It's just another gamble for Grimsley, a magnet for mayhem all his life. At 12, he lost his left big toe in a motorcycle accident. Big deal.

"The other toes just moved over to compensate," he said.

A broken wrist and a bum shoulder cost him two years of high school ball in Cleveland, Texas.

"Growing up, I was always doing `no-fear' stuff and landing in the emergency room," Grimsley said. "I'm lucky to be alive."

His most notorious act in the majors was a Mission: Impossible stunt. With the Cleveland Indians in 1994, Grimsley wriggled for 40 minutes through a tiny crawl space to rescue Albert Belle's corked bat, which had been confiscated by umpires that same game.

Five years ago, the injuries started to mount -- sometimes in freakish fashion. In 2000, Grimsley underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. Two years later, after a rain delay, he slipped on the mound and strained a stomach muscle.

In 2003, during batting practice, an errant fly ball struck Grimsley in the neck. He collapsed and, for several minutes, lost all feeling in his hands and feet.

He shrugged it off and stayed on the job, eating innings.

"Everybody has to pitch in pain," he said. "Any pitcher who says nothing hurts is full of it."

Last year was the worst. While pitching for the Kansas City Royals, Grimsley raced to cover the bag on a grounder hit down the line, unaware that his first baseman was throwing home to stave off a run.

"The ball hit me right in the noggin," he said.

Living dangerously

Two weeks later, the Royals sent Grimsley to the Orioles for pitching prospect Denny Bautista. New team, old luck. In August, he landed in a hole on the mound at Camden Yards, straining his hip.

Those aches, he could handle. What spooked Grimsley was a new, searing pain that began in his elbow and pulsed up and down the arm.

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