GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Consider Brandon McCarthy merely the latest pitcher to realize that the recovery from Tommy John surgery is more of a brainteaser than a strength-and-conditioning program.
As the Los Angeles Dodgers' starter begins throwing a baseball again, the serious mind-bending has only just begun. There will be days in the near future when McCarthy will wake up convinced that the piercing pain in his elbow means that his elbow has blown out again. It will be only a sinister illusion.
Tommy John surgery is cruel indeed, and not just because of the 12-18 months it typically keeps a pitcher on the sideline.
"They’ll tell you you’ll have ups and downs," McCarthy said. "There are a lot of people to talk to, where there is not a lot of unchartered territory here. It does help some that you can at least reach out to people where they can tell you, 'No you’re not crazy. This is just how it is.'"
Yet, just because there are other members of the same dreaded club to lean on, it doesn’t mean he won't feel like he is all by himself, hiking a mountain trail that always has another bend to navigate, always seems to have one more peak to reach.
Dodgers pitchers Brett Anderson and Brandon Beachy know this trail well. Anderson was there in 2011, but there are only a select few who have anything on Beachy, who not only underwent Tommy John in 2012, but also blew out his elbow again in 2014 and had to start rolling the boulder back uphill, a real-life Sisyphus.
"Some of those lows were awfully low when I didn’t even feel like I was going to be able to just go out and play catch again,” said Beachy, who admitted there were multiple days when he was reduced to tears by the process. “There were days when I was standing in the outfield jealous of guys that are just shagging a ball, picking it up and throwing it to the guy with the bucket. Just something simple like that makes you look at the game differently."
In McCarthy’s case, he was four starts into a new four-year, $48 million contract with the Dodgers last season, coming off his first year of 200 innings, when something went pop. His season was done just like that, and the layoff will continue into this season.
Yet in a sign of just how detailed recovery from Tommy John surgery is these days, McCarthy’s schedule has him starting his own spring training routine in May, having minor league rehab starts in June and then not just returning before the All-Star break, but having two starts with the Dodgers by then.
What that schedule doesn’t show are all the mind games ahead, and the days when it will feel like that schedule never will be accomplished. McCarthy’s return to a baseball setting, by reporting to spring training, is a bit of a good news/bad news scenario.
"You feel like a loner, not part of the team," said Anderson, whose elbow blew out when he was a member of the Oakland Athletics. "You feel like an outcast in a way, but you also welcome the sight of people, too. It’s better now because you are around baseball and around other players as opposed to the offseason when you’re seemingly by yourself doing monotonous exercises and stuff, day in and day out."
McCarthy’s latest cleared hurdle came Wednesday and was marked by the fact that a light throwing session was made different because he used a catcher in the squatting position. Recovering from Tommy John is not unlike monitoring a long drive on the highway by counting all the exit ramps being passed.
"Us being friends, if he comes in one day and he feels something that he thinks is abnormal, he might ask if I went through the same thing and I can tell him what I did or didn’t do," Anderson said. "He can kind of lean on me that way. It always helps to have somebody who’s gone through it."
The monotony lets your mind wander, sending McCarthy into thoughts about how the surgery works in the first place. Fittingly enough, the surgery was pioneered in the 1970s by former Dodgers team doctor Frank Jobe, when he rebuilt the elbow of pitcher Tommy John, of course.
Of particular interest to McCarthy is the idea that a tendon is used to replace an elbow ligament and that the tendon essentially morphs itself into a ligament. McCarthy’s tendon came from the inside of his right forearm, but they can also come from a leg or even a cadaver.
McCarthy is fascinated by the metamorphosis, wondering if there is a segment of the population that would be willing to get Tommy John surgery in the name of science and allow themselves to be opened up at various points of the rehab process to see just when the change from tendon to ligament takes place.
Yes, the recovery from Tommy John surgery apparently can mess with your mind that much.
"They take a tendon out and then your body has to say, 'OK, we have to turn this into something completely new,'" McCarthy said. "And then it has to hold up."
And hold up it usually does, although Beachy is in that rare group where it didn’t. Yet even he will advocate for the surgery’s success rate.
"There are too many success stories for anybody to have any worries coming back, especially from a first one," Beachy said. "I wouldn’t think anybody should be worried about that. Of course (a setback) is going to happen a little bit, but not to a serious level. It’s just that age-old thing that you try not to get too high when it’s going good and not get too low when it’s going bad."
That setback comes when your arm feels injured again. McCarthy is ready for it. He has heard the stories and has prepared himself.
"I know these next couple of months, when you really start to ask more of it, and you’re stressing something that was surgically repaired, you’ll say, 'OK, that’s it. This is all done. We’re going to hell,'" McCarthy said. "Then by lunch that day you’ll feel fine and think, 'OK, quit worrying.'"
Each Tommy John surgery needs to come with its own counselor.
"For me, I would wake up every morning and it feels good, I play catch and it feels good and then [the] rest of the afternoon and evening I can feel it," Beachy said. "It’s like a switch turned on and it’s there buzzing like a street light. That’s where it’s like, 'Oh man is this going to go away? What is it going to feel like in the morning?'
"Then every morning you wake up and feel normal and then go through the same struggles again the next night. You try not to think about it. I found, going through it twice, the more I can keep myself just to where I am focused on something, whether it be a movie or a card game or whatever, where you can just focus on something and not give your mind time to wander and think about what it’s feeling, the better."
Notice that Beachy never included brain-teasers among his methods for escape.