Tommy John surgery and meeting Tommy John
Nearly every baseball pitcher who's ever had Tommy John surgery remembers the moment they started seeing signs of elbow problems. Most probably remember when they were told that surgery was their best option. Many even remember the long, hard rehab process.
Former Towamensing Township Yankees pitcher Mike Sabo has even more to tell about having the procedue and trying to get back to full strength.
Sabo, now an assistant coach for Towamensing in the Keystone Senior Babe Ruth League, was aided in his rehab by advice from the man who the procedure is named after - former Major League pitcher Tommy John.
It was over two years ago in June of 2010 when Sabo first felt the signs of elbow problems.
He was pitching against a team filled with Pleasant Valley High School players and wanted to prove something to his classmates, most of which had made the Bears' varsity staff over Sabo.
"I wanted the ball because I was pitching against my alma mater, which wouldn't consider even taking a look at me to try out," Sabo said. "I was motivated and determined when I was warming up before the game.
"I remember praying and I said, "Please God, even if this is the last game I ever pitch, I really want to win this game."
While he got the win that day, he also felt his first problems.
"It was the seventh inning and we were up like ten runs," Sabo said. "I was cruising along and I decided that I didn't really need to mix up my pitches. So I stuck with my fastball. It felt like it was still the first inning. I had no signs of any soreness in my elbow.
"Just with one pitch, I remember looking up at my elbow on that pitch. I never really look up at my arm. As I was halfway in my motion I looked up at it and I felt a pop and then I felt pain. I thought it was maybe a bad pitch, so I tried one more pitch and it didn't work out. I called into the dugout and said, 'Coach, I'm done' and he came out and got me."
Sabo attempted to get back into the swing of things at practice a few days later.
"I was throwing the ball back to the catcher and still had pain," Sabo added. "I finished the practice just catching the ball for the coach."
Two days later Sabo decided to go to a doctor. The doctor told him he had torn the ligament in his elbow and possibly needed surgery.
"My dad let the decision completely up to me," Sabo said. "His whole thought process was that I was never going to make it to the majors, so I knew his decision was not to get the surgery. Still, he left it completely up to me.
"With me being an athletic kid and loving sports, the game is my life and it's also my major in college (sports management), I opted for the surgery. I had so much support throughout the whole process."
Even after the surgery and into his rehabilitation process, his elbow still didn't feel completely right.
At that year's team banquet, head coach Don Hunter set Sabo up with someone who knew a little something about that procedure.
"Coach set me up with Billy Staples," Sabo said. "I told him about my situation with my surgery. He said, 'I know a guy that can help you with the rehab. His name is Tommy John.'"
With Sabo in the process of finishing a semester at East Stroudsburg University, he waited to get back in touch with Staples until his semester ended.
After chatting with a friend Kyle Pierce and Staples on Facebook about his therapy and his elbow, a message popped up from Staples asking Sabo what he was doing the next day.
Sabo was free, so Staples invited him and Pierce to meet at his house. Staples said he was taking Pierce and Sabo to meet two people, one of which remained nameless. The other was a 19-year-old girl, the same age as Sabo, who was battling Stage 4 brain cancer and had been told she had just 12 months to live.
The next day they all met up with Staples and he took them for a drive. Sabo and Pierce had no idea where they were going.
"We ended up driving down to Jersey," Sabo said.
Still curious where they were going, Staples helped the guys out a bit by firing out some hints. Soon enough, Sabo realized they were going to meet Tommy John.
"Just before we got there, he was throwing out stats," said Sabo. "He was like, 'Do you guys have any idea where we are going?' I said, 'Tommy John?' He said, 'Yup.'"
They had lunch with the four-time All-Star and received some advice about taking care of the elbow, as well as some stories of his glory days.
"We asked him some questions about his favorite memories," Sabo said. "His favorite memory was the raining playoff game against the Phillies. He told us how many wins he had after his surgery. I believe it was 167. He had only won 238 overall, so the majority of his wins came after the surgery.
"I told him about my surgery. His best advice to me was, 'If you feel pain, just don't try to be a tough guy and stick it out. The pain isn't supposed to be there. If you have pain, stop throwing.'"
When the day was over, Sabo walked away with an autograph and a memory for a lifetime.
"He was just a great guy. He told us many stories. No complaints. Signed over 100 autographs for Billy for his educational scholarships. No complaints came out of him at all."
To this day, Sabo is living his dream of possibly playing another day. And Tommy John himself may have helped make it even more possible.