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Before Tommy John surgery became widespread, pitchers like Bud Black continued to pitch despite the pain

Rockies manager Bud Black chose not to have Tommy John surgery late in his career, even though his pitching elbow would swell after every outing and begin hurting once he reached a certain number of throws. If Black were pitching

By JANIE McCAULEY (AP Baseball Writer)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — After each game late in his career, Bud Black's left elbow would swell without fail. He would start feeling the pain in his pitching arm after a certain number of throws each game, and the specific number would vary based on the circumstances.

The experienced Colorado Rockies manager did not have an MRI back then, just an X-ray, but he didn't require an advanced scan to know there was significant structural damage.

When Tommy John surgery became a possible option for Black in his mid-30s, he recognized that due to the stage of his career and the long recovery period, he would be nearly 38 years old by the time he returned to the mound. As a result, he chose to keep pitching despite the pain.

Black has no remorse, even though he is aware of the numerous players who have succeeded after the elbow ligament reconstruction procedure, which is commemorating its 50th anniversary.

When Black retired in 1995, fewer than 100 professional pitchers had undergone Tommy John surgery. Now, that number has surpassed 2,200, according to data compiled by baseball researcher Jon Roegele.

“Back then in the early 90s in my last couple years with the Giants, I had some elbow discomfort, but I was one of those guys that my elbow just progressively started to end up with some trauma that probably in this day in age would have required Tommy John,” Black shared. “There’s a lot of pitchers who have that one-time event — one pitch or one game — where it progressively got worse and by the end of that game they needed Tommy John. Mine sort of happened over a couple years and I was able to pitch through a lot.”

In fact, Black achieved double-digit wins each year from 1989-1992 — the first three of those exceeding 200 innings — then went 8-2 over 16 starts in 1993 with the Giants before making 10 starts each of the next two years while going 4-2 both seasons for San Francisco and Cleveland.

“I came back in ’94 and started games and then we went on strike and then in ’95 my last year I made 12 starts and ended up getting released,” he said. “A couple of those last starts in Cleveland I could feel my elbow. I wasn’t going to be able to withstand the length of the season. My elbow started bothering me.”

All these years later as a longtime manager, the 66-year-old Black is thrilled he can still throw pain-free batting practice and hit groundballs during drills with the Rockies.

He can golf for fun, too.

However, performing any activity at game speed would be a different story.

“What happens with a compromised ligament or a torn ligament as a professional baseball player, that high-intensity throw, that high-intensity swing, the effort you need to compete at, you can’t do it if you have a torn ligament, if you have a torn UCL,” he said. “Same thing with the anterior cruciate ligament of your knee. If somebody tears their ligament in regular everyday life. you can compensate and get through it without an ACL repair, but to compete at the highest level, the ACL in the knee and the UCL in the elbow, they have to be repaired.”

Nolan Ryan, who is in the Hall of Fame, pitched the later part of his career with a damaged UCL and decided not to have the surgery.

Retired right-hander R.A. Dickey said, “He was still throwing mid-90s. I never had a visible UCL on MRI scans and didn’t need anything other than arthroscopic surgery along the way.

Drafted 18th overall by Texas in 1996 from Tennessee, Dickey crossed paths with Ryan while pitching in the Rangers organization.

Dickey said, “I think it affected his recovery from time to time. He had a partial rip in his UCL. He was sharing that with me to try and encourage me.”

If Black had been younger and earlier in his career, he might have chosen a different path with his elbow. He understands every case is individual.

“I would have considered the surgery for sure, but where I was in my career, it just didn’t make sense,” said Black. “It’s so unique to each pitcher what they’re able to do physically even though their ligament is compromised.”



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