I found out that my first Tommy John surgery failed because of my doctor’s negligence. How did I react?
A Sample Chapter From Dear Baseball Gods: A Memoir By Dan Blewett
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Dear Baseball Gods, The Rotten Planks Were a Gift.
One of my favorite thought experiments is the ship of Theseus. King Theseus was a naval war hero in Greek mythology and had his ship preserved in memorial. Over time, the wooden boards of the ship rotted and were replaced with new ones. The ship lived on, but was no longer comprised completely of the original planks. It’s a problem of identity and the question posed is this: as boards are replaced, when does Theseus’ ship become a new ship? After the first board? 10 boards? If 51% of the original ship is still intact is it still the original?
My career clock ticked daily in my head, reminding me that if I didn’t evolve and get better today, tomorrow I’d be two days behind. The standard rose each year and it became necessary to replace planks before they rotted. By the time a pitcher realizes he needs to change, its often too late. When I entered pro baseball in 2010, I was one of only a handful of starters in my league who could throw every fastball in a game above 90. As a reliever I average 92, a measure considered much too slow by today’s standards. I underwent a second Tommy John surgery and beat the odds by restoring 100% of my previous velocity. Yet, restoring a two-year old version is still…a version that’s two years outdated. We have to change and change now. The herd of younger players thunders on with or without us.
I received a gracilis tendon allograft in my first Tommy John surgery. An allograft is tissue donated by another person. My tendon came from a deceased man and they gave me the option of writing his family an anonymous letter. I declined. I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure what I’d say or how I’d say it. I just couldn’t find the words. I regret not penning that letter and thought about my elbow a lot after that surgery. With four years of philosophy under my belt, Theseus’s ship immediately jumped into my mind. Was I the same person? Was I still me? Was this man living through my elbow?
In January of 2018, I spoke at the American Sports Medicine Institute’s 36th Annual Injuries in Baseball Course. The seminar is organized each year by renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews and his institute. I received a rare invitation to speak from a non-medical perspective; I jumped at the chance. In front of a sea of doctors, trainers and physical therapists, I spoke about what the surgery meant to me, how there was a gap in the rehab process and how important the emotional side of the recovery was. Afterward, a group of doctors and physical therapists shook my hand and chatted with me. I revealed in my speech how I received an allograft. With raised eyebrows, the first question they asked was “who did your surgery?” I confirmed their suspicions, as my doctor was known for using allografts. One of them told me I almost certainly had a case to sue for malpractice. The use of a cadaver graft in a first Tommy John procedure was so uncommon that it was almost certainly the reason it had failed. My leaking, busted plank was replaced with another equally rotten one.
I immediately dismissed the idea of a lawsuit. In baseball, all of us see politics at work. We all notice when the son of a scout, pro player or manager gets drafted despite a .210 batting average or 86mph fastball and a 5.50 ERA. I never envied those people and spent as little time as I could being bitter about it. I’ve always wanted to earn the money in my wallet and the trophies on my wall. I didn’t want to dig up old ghosts in court and wag my finger about the pain and suffering my doctor caused me, even if I was righteous in doing so. I don’t feel wronged and couldn’t make a straight-faced argument that undue pain and suffering came my way because of that allograft. I know my career path might have been completely different. But it wasn’t. When a plank needed to be replaced, I pulled out my hammer and nail. Blaming the ocean would only allow more water to flow into the hull.
It’s impossible to always come back better after an injury; sometimes, a restoration is about as good as it gets. Though I couldn’t trend physically upward every year, mentally I could. What I found most valuable was the way I changed. A new, stronger man regularly replaced the old one in the mirror. The surgeries didn’t hinder that — they helped it. The year after leaving Fargo, I saw hard work pay off. I watched myself rise to the challenge Fargo imposed upon me. I realized that Simi’s outburst had forced me to replace an entire section of my boat. Because of it, the sailing was smoother and faster than ever. Mentally I never stayed the same — to stay the same meant being left behind. In my return to Evansville, I grew up faster and taller than any year prior.
In 2012, Simi called to release me from my contract in Fargo just a week before spring training was slated to begin. He had a backup option for me.
“Andy from Evansville really wants you to pitch for him. They think you can be their #1 guy. I know the American Association was tough on you, so give it some thought. I can trade you there if you want and we won’t have to officially release you. It’s your call.”
I asked to be released, assuming the step down, back into the younger Frontier League would be bad for my career. I’d hold out for another American Association team to call. A short time later the phone rang — it was not who I expected.
“Blew how are ya, kid? I heard you’re back on the market.” It was Brooks.
“Hey Brooks. Yeah, I guess I am.”
“There’s a few things you don’t know. First, I’m no longer with Normal because I took the pitching coach job in Evansville. Andy McCauley is a good man. He’s the manager here. He and I both want you to come pitch for us. I want you to be our ace. You can do that job, I know you can.”
I resisted, but so did Brooks, continuing to explain that Andy was a fair, honest, good manager. I should play for him, he said. I’d get plenty of chances to redeem myself. After a few hours of deliberation, I decided being a second-year holdout wasn’t good. I hadn’t earned enough in the game to be holding out for anything. I had an opportunity to pitch and to be a #1 at that. I dialed Andy’s number, which both Simi and Brooks had sent me.
“Hey Dan. Glad to hear from you. My guess is that Brooksy filled you in on the situation? What do you say? I think it’d be a great fit for you here. The owner, Bill Bussing, really loves the team and takes good care of the players here.”
“Let’s do it.”
“Fantastic! I’ll fax over the contract. Is a thousand bucks okay?”
“That’s the most I’ve made thus far. Sure. Thank you.”
“You got it. Look forward to seeing you here soon.”
In baseball your statistics, known in the lingo as “your numbers,” become your résumé. My ERA in Fargo, the most important number in a pitcher’s résumé, was an abysmal 7.69. Anything above 4.50 is grounds to get released, so I didn’t have the luxury of being choosy. Really, I was lucky to get another chance at all. I thought back to that day in the Chicago hotel. If I hadn’t called Brooks before leaving for Fargo…would he have called me? The answer had to have been no. Andy had been in the league, managing for Evansville, when I played for Normal. Yet, I was a year removed and though Andy and Simi were friends, there wasn’t much good in my 2011 season. Brooks had to have been the driving force. He really didn’t owe me anything for that phone call, but he kept his word nonetheless.
A month and a half later, I was sitting beneath the scoreboard in my sweat-soaked pregame shirt and shorts. The sun was beating down as I sat cross-legged beyond the centerfield wall. Still new to my meditation practice, I tried to find secluded places where I could sit in silence, away from judgmental eyes. With the exception of Garrett Bullock, a Wake Forest grad and left-handed pitcher, I didn’t know any other players who meditated. Those who played with Gare-Bear would corroborate that he was both a genius and an unabashed nerd. What I loved about him was how he completely owned his dorkiness — he found ways to one-up himself until the last day of the season. “Dude! Are you reading a textbook on the toilet?!” He’d just cackle with laughter. When I later needed an escort to and from Cincinnati for surgery, Garrett volunteered. He drove me both ways and played nurse for a day. Today he is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and is completing a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostats at the University of Oxford. There, he says, “everyone is a super-dork like me.”
Because I couldn’t own my dorkiness like Gare-Bear could, I went out of my way to find new hiding spots. The scoreboard was secluded, but there was a reason I would never choose that gravely location again. As the first few ants crawled up my arms and legs, I snapped my eyes open to brush them off me. I only had 20 more minutes before I had to start getting ready, so I was committed to my spot.
Will you die? Will the ants kill you?
No, I replied to the voice.
Then sit still. Isn’t being comfortable with discomfort…kind of the point?
I closed my eyes and tried to relax. As a few more tiny black ants crawled up my arms, legs, back and chest, I stayed still. I kept my lids shut as I traced out their path in my mind. Ordinarily, I’d focus on my breath and repeat words of confidence in my head, reminding myself of who I was and who I wanted to be. I visualized my next start and how I’d attack hitters, watching each pitch stream toward the mitt with a visible tail like that of tracer round shot from a machine gun. The ants were just a new challenge, a new distraction to block out. They were tiny little hecklers and would only steal my clarity if I let them. Twenty minutes later, I opened my eyes, stood up and shook them all off like a wet dog. I was hungry — I needed a peanut butter and jelly.
I had rolled into town with mixed feelings that quickly faded. I loved Bosse Field and immediately bonded with my starting pitcher brethren. Evansville hadn’t been a winning team in a few years, despite enjoying a championship in 2006. In his 40s, tall and tan from days in the hot Southern Indiana sun, Andy took the reigns in 2010, the same year I first entered the league. He had been managing for a dozen years prior, with notably long stops in Schaumburg and Kansas City where, in 2008, he won his first championship. In a 2016 article for the Evansville Courier & Press, he shared his desire to wear an Otters jersey until the end: “I will be ending my career here whether it’s retirement, death or firing.” After countless winning seasons and a 2016 championship, he’s probably in the captains chair for a good while longer. He gives his players respect, freedom and more chances than most to turn around a slump. Good will emanated from his coaches’ office in Bosse Field.
Pitchers in pro baseball don’t interact with their manager nearly as often as amateur players do. During batting practice, the manager typically hangs out behind the backstop — known as the turtle — as position players take their daily three or four rounds of BP. The hitters interact with him between rounds, whereas pitchers are relegated to the outfield, shagging batted balls and generally being bored. At all other times, pitchers are elsewhere doing pitcher things that simply don’t concern the manager. Once on-field activities are done for the day, the manager will then go into hiding as he confers with his coaching staff, writes the lineup and plans out the minutia of the game. Throughout my career, my manager was somewhat of a work acquaintance, to whom I’d say hello but not stop and speak with in the hallways.
Our relationship evolved beyond those typically sterile interactions. The turning point came in the season in June, when after a few go-rounds of the starting rotation, I had been consistently leaving with a lead. We bussed up north to Traverse City, Michigan for a three-game road series. By the time my start rolled around on the third day, we were in the throngs of a four-game losing streak. Our squad got blown out in games one and two of the series and we needed to stop the bleeding. When you’re the ace of the staff, it’s your job to plug that wound.
It was the seventh inning and we had just pushed across a run to take a 2–1 lead. The Traverse City Beach Bums had a curiously designed ballpark. Most stadiums are all brick and mortar, rising high above the playing surface. The shell of Wuerfel Park, by contrast, was clad in white siding, grey pitched roofs with square-paned windows that belonged in a bedroom. The entire shell resembled a long row of two-story beach townhouses. Inside the park, the suites were the same — they looked like beachfront homes on the tall stilts that protect against storm surges. White Adirondack chairs lined the concourse areas. It was a unique ballpark unlike any I had seen.
With one out, I gave up a double that put the tying run on second. After a strikeout, Brooks came out to talk to me. I could hear Eric Massingham, our closer, warming up.
“Mass is over there.” He motioned toward our bullpen in the right-field corner. “He’s about ready. I can bring him in now. Unless…” I gave him a disapproving look out of the corner of my eye. Brooks was clearly trying to bait me into saying something, and doing so with no subtlety whatsoever. He prattled on a bit longer, not being the least bit clever in disguising what he was doing. He wanted to hear me say, I got this! Leave me in, Brooks! So I did.
I looked him in the eye and calmly explained that the next hitter couldn’t hit a curveball, and that I had the best one in the league. It would be most wise to leave me in. Brooks smiled and said “that’s all I wanted to hear!” He departed back down the mound toward the dugout, walking his lopsided walk. I made good on my promise, striking out the final hitter of the inning to end the threat.
I returned to the dugout after that inning to a few extra few pats on the butt and a big “Heck of a job, Blew!” from Andy. A perpetually even-keeled guy, I felt good drawing some excitement out of him. I wanted to help him win games because managers needed to keep their jobs just like we players did. He had given me a fresh start in Evansville and so we were in it together. Mass came into the tight ballgame in the eighth for a two-inning save, though we tacked on a few runs in the ninth to give him some breathing room. We hit the road with a much-needed 5–1 victory, ending our losing-streak.
It was one of the first times in my career when I truly felt like a leader. I thought back to my conversation with Dr. Templeton. Maybe I was finally growing toward the canopy of the forest as my experiences in baseball deepened my roots. Maybe I could lead, not just by example off the field but in action — when the lights were on. In my upper-class years in college I know that I helped show the young players what hard work looked like. Yet, my performances were never good enough — I simply couldn’t put it all together on the field, even as I earned the #1 pitcher label of that meager staff. Competing for my job was bringing out the best in me. I was slowly learning how to put a team on my back and rise up. On that night in Michigan, I was the guy. Hard work was paying off, I thought. If I kept it up, maybe I’d soon get a chance with an MLB team.
Players police themselves at high levels and thus many aspects of dugout life are subject to unwritten rules, enforced by whoever decides to enforce them. One of my friends in the starting rotation was a guy named Matt, who got the short end of the stick by our offense. He was 0–6 after six starts despite an ERA that was in the mid-4.00s. A 4.50 ERA is about average — it’s not good, but it’s also not terrible. It will get you released sometimes, but pitchers also make it whole seasons pitching to a 4.50. This time, because of his pathetic win-loss record, Matt was on the chopping block. Brooks had told me in confidence that Matt needed to pitch well in his next start or the ownership was going to get rid of him. He couldn’t control his losing record, but it would be the death of him nonetheless.
As Matt made his next start at home, he opposed a good starting pitcher who threw harder than average with a very good curveball. This fellow mowed down our hitters for the first few innings on nothing but high fastballs and knee-high curveballs. As I watched, nervous that we needed to start hitting him, I felt exceedingly frustrated that our hitters weren’t adjusting. Our opponent was pitching with a very predictable pattern — curveballs for strikes and high fastballs above the strike zone. A hitter had to do one of two things to adjust: sit on the curveball that he tossed over the plate or ignore the high fastball. Either would force him to bring his fastball down into the zone, where hitters would have an advantage. Rather, we continued to swing and strike out on pitches that were out of the zone. We also continued to stare at curveballs right down the middle. It was ugly and Matt deserved better.
The hitters’ jobs weren’t on the line but Matt’s was — he was pitching for his life. Later in the game, one of our hitters took a big, aggressive cut at a first-pitch high fastball and drove it to the wall. A knee-jerk reaction to my frustration, I blurted out “Great! Looks like at least one of our hitters is trying!” This did not sit well with the two hitters hanging on the dugout rail next to me. Both backed off the rail as they turned toward me, brows furrowed in anger as they asked in explicit terms what I was implying.
I thought for a moment: would I retract it and apologize? I felt the scared college kid in me tug on my shirt. Then, I smacked his hand away. No. I meant it. Matt deserves better.
“What I mean is that my teammate is out there on the mound battling, and you hitters keep striking out the exact same way. Someone needs to make an adjustment.”
This did not go over well.
They got in my face and I wagged my finger right back as the shouting match nearly exploded into a brawl at the top of our steep, concrete dugout steps. Andy ran over from his post.
“Break it up! You’re teammates!”
We backed off into separate corners, slumping onto our stools as the rest of the team nervously wondered if the bell would ring again. I spit into the bucket and scowled across the ring. Eventually, we all took off our boxing gloves and got back to the game.
The next day, Andy grabbed me while we pitchers were out doing pitcher things.
“Hey Blew, so listen — what you said wasn’t wrong, but I can’t have the team tearing itself apart from the inside.” I nodded.
The hitters needed to do a better job of making adjustments, he explained, as I apologized to him. What I did wasn’t productive — no one would have responded well to how I said what I said. It stuck in my mind though as either a turning point or a sign that I’d already turned. Snapping at Pete in Lake County and now nearly brawling in the dugout? I was just…changing.
In college, some of our team rules and policies made me feel like a child, unable to explore my limits. At times I felt like little more than a bonsai tree, being pruned into a handsome, albeit limited shape. I got most of the opportunities I needed, but looking back I see now why I didn’t come to understand who I was as a pitcher until much later. Pro baseball didn’t just provide freedom, it was freedom. I was out exploring the country, playing the game I loved while growing into myself. I could get drunk all night if I chose and as long as I showed up and played well, no one would say a thing. Though I didn’t choose that, the knowledge that my decisions and consequences were purely my own, all of it allowed me to become who I really was — to grow tall or not — as Dr. Templeton had alluded.
Despite another tally in Matt’s loss column, he stuck around. Having battled back from injuries and a terrible season prior in Fargo, I felt a strong sense of ownership in that team. I wanted to repay Andy, Brooks and the ownership for not only taking a chance on me after a bad season, but putting faith in me. I hadn’t earned the #1 role, they just believed I could rise up to meet it. I wanted to prove that I was worthy. Maybe that had something to do with the shouting match in the dugout.
A few weeks later, I made what would become my last start of the season for Evansville. I walked off the mound yet again escorted by the umpire and my coach, the same walk I had done years earlier in college. I got the news that my elbow was again torn and required Tommy John surgery. I deflated completely. A few weeks later I received the good news that I was voted a member of our division’s All-Star team. It was held in Normal that season — my adopted hometown — and thus I had been greatly anticipating that vote. Until the news of my elbow, it felt like a dream to start the All-Star game in front of all the young kids I trained. They’d get to see their coach in action. Sadly, all I could do was wave as I readied boards and nails for my upcoming surgery.
When I returned from the game, the only thing I could do was wait for my surgery date and so I became, more or less, a member of the coaching staff. I spent more time with Brooks and Andy and existed in a strange in-between where I was no longer an active player but wasn’t a coach, either. It was tough carrying on the same as I did before, knowing that I wouldn’t step onto the field again for at least another 18 months. I tried to be a good teammate and not bring anyone else down with me. My 2012 season was over and 2013 was done before it even began. I knew well what a long, tedious journey I had in front of me, but I committed to it that day in Rockford when I suited up. I was having too much fun finding out how good I could be and how tall I might grow. I would not fade quietly into civilian life like so many others had.
I was scheduled for surgery in Cincinnati by the Reds’ team physician, Dr. Tim Kremchek. As a “revision” patient, I needed a world-class doctor who could clean up the mess from a previously-repaired elbow ligament. As the August 7 date approached, Andy assured me that he’d make calls for me when I was ready. Once you’re out, getting back in is not easy — the game waits for no man. Duff got me to Simi. Simi gave me chances I didn’t deserve. When Fargo released me, Brooks kept his word and handed me off to Andy.
“Blew. When you’re ready, you call me.” I nodded, but it wouldn’t be the same me that showed up on his caller ID in a year or two. I was rotting already, time and age accelerating the process. If I merely revived my old self, I’d never get back in. I had learned better than to wait for change. The old me would not return. Those rotten planks were a gift.
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