Sunday, June 29, 2014
There is nothing worse than watching a baseball game in which you cannot play.
For Berkeley Stags rising senior Brad Browder, the majority of his high school baseball career has involved those exact words, “You cannot play.”
Especially when it’s your doctor telling you this.
Browder, a pitcher, hasn’t thrown a competitive pitch for the Stags since his sophomore year and JV ball, and even then, the experience was excruciating.
It’s hard to pitch through pain, especially ligament damage pain. If you want to know how that feels, take your elbow and bend it back the other way - the way it’s not supposed to bend - until your fingers touch your armpit.
For Brad Browder, every pitch felt like this.
“In the fall of 2013 I had to shut down playing fall baseball because of pain in my elbow,” he said. “We went to doctors and tried rest and for most of the year I didn’t pitch because of pain in my right elbow.”
Browder took the summer off and tried to resume throwing in the fall. Less than a dozen pitches into his first bullpen session he felt something pull in his elbow.
And then the pain came.
He knew he was finished.
“You watch guys like Kris Medlan and Brandon Beachy of the Braves throw a pitch like that and just walk off the mound. You wonder how they know their elbow is done. When it happens to you, you just know. You can’t throw another pitch.”
It’s one thing to pitch through pain. Every pitcher has done it. Most pitchers live with pain every time they pitch.
It’s quite another thing to pitch hurt.
“I was running out of time,” he said. “I had to make some kind of decision. Either I get my elbow fixed or I find another position to play besides pitching or another sport to play besides baseball.”
Browder wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. Maybe because he couldn’t throw.
“Let’s do this,” he said finally.
“Do this,” in baseball vernacular, meant go under the knife and have Tommy John surgery at age 17.
“Tommy John Surgery,” known in medical practice as ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, is a surgical graft procedure in which the ulnar collateral ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. Recovery from the surgery takes anywhere from 12-to-15 months.
For a high school athlete that’s almost half their four-year career.
“I felt like my high school baseball career was slipping away,” he said at the time of the surgery. “If I didn’t do something now my high school baseball career would be over and I wouldn’t have played an inning.”
Browder decided to forego his junior year’s season and have the surgery, putting all his eggs in one basket on the hopes of a healthy senior season. Armed with that mindset, the decision was an easy one.
“Baseball is my life and I want to play in college if I’m good enough,” he said. “What I’ve done with the surgery is push everything back a year.”
In college recruiting terms, Browder’s “coming out” year will be his senior season as opposed to the junior year he just missed where he had to sit and watch his Berkeley Stags fall to Hartsville in the Class AAA Lower State Championship.
“It’s so hard to just sit here and watch, and not be able to do anything to help out the team,” he said during a practice session where he was doing just that, sitting and watching from the dugout.
The bulk of Browder’s varsity baseball experience has been manning the Stags’ “Gamechanger” application, which posts live action game results online. He has handled a laptop more often than he’s picked up a bat or ball.
But don’t think Browder’s time on the sidelines has been wasted. He is a disciple of the game and he is involved on every pitch. When Coach Landy Cox has a game question as to what a hitter has done on a previous at bat, or what pitch was thrown that resulted in a particular play, he consulted Browder.
“Brad is a smart young man and a devoted student of baseball,” Cox said. “He knows what’s going on out there on the field. He knows the game.”
Browder hopes to capitalize on the experience. He did so much more than just sit on the bench and mope.
“I watched. I listened to everything they said. Most importantly, I learned.”
And what did Browder learn watching his teammates play day in and day out?
“If they ever let me hit there’s no way I’m ever swinging at any pitch above my hands. No pop ups. Everything on the ground. I can’t believe when I see these guys continue to go after the high fastball and not a minute before Coach Cox has told them, ‘Lay off the high fastball. Hit the ball on the ground.’”
The biggest lesson he’s learned though, is proper pitching mechanics.
“My mechanics before the surgery were awful,” he said. “I was dropping my arm and putting all the pressure on my elbow. I wasn’t staying tight or bending my back with my follow-through. I was throwing all arm.”
Browder has seen photographs of his pitching delivery before the surgery and was amazed his elbow could bend that way.
“All the pressure,” he said as he tapped the six-inch railroad track scar along his right elbow, “Was right here.”
During bullpen sessions this spring and summer, Browder has taken these lessons to heart and is making the most of them.
“He’s already throwing in the mid-80s,” Cox said. “He’s supposed to be taking it easy in these sessions, but you can tell when he cuts loose on a pitch. He’s got great location and great movement on his fastball. If we can have him healthy next season, Browder will help us out a lot.”
For Browder, throwing sessions now are a test to answer some serious questions, most importantly being, “Will this hurt?”
So far, no.
His throwing sessions have been pain free.
That makes the lanky righthander smile.
It also helps his parents understand they made the right decision in having their son proceed with the Tommy John surgery.
Watching her son undergo such an invasive and drastic surgicial procedure was difficult for Kim Browder, but she had to remain strong, and have faith the doctors knew what was best for her son. The decision to proceed with the surgery wasn’t one she or her son took lightly.
“We all sat down as a family after meeting with the doctor and discussed it at great length. He definitely had our support with whatever decision he made... We didn’t want him to do it if he wasn’t serious about the game and didn’t feel like he had a future in it.
“Brad actually told me a couple of days after his surgery that if he knew he’d be in that much pain he might have given baseball up and played football.”
Kim knew her son had just one chance to follow his dream. “Brad has had this dream of playing college baseball ever since I can remember and of course that would lead to playing Major League Basebal one day - what kid doesn’t dream that right?”
The Tommy John surgery has kept her son’s baseball dream alive for now.
“Brad’s been very dedicated with therapy, stretching, excercising, and now it’s back to the throwing program that will prepare him for competitive pitching.”
She called the unconditional support from her son’s baseball friends inspiring.
“The support from his friends, family and coaches has been amazing,” she said. “The day of surgery he had an entourage of people with him that love him dearly and many, many more who called and sent text messages all day checking on him and so we waited and waited and waited, then finally what we had been waiting for... The doctor to tell us everything went well.”
Kim knows watching him pitch next season for the first time will be a tense and frightening ordeal at the start.
“I’ll be honest. Seeing him throw the ball now makes me scared, it’s not only been a physical adjustment but a mental one as well. But I can tell you that he’s ready... Seeing his teammates on the field and not big able to join them in battle is not easy. We know there will good days and bad days but he’s got so much support from friends and coaches all around us that want to see him succeed and so do we.”
For Tracey Browder, Brad’s father, seeing his son be physically unable to play the sport he loved was difficult.
“As a father who has watched his son play the sport he loves for 12 years it’s tough not seeing him on the field, but Brad is not only a pitcher he’s a team player. Since his surgery he has not missed a practice or a game and he’s right there with his teammates everyday and I’m very thankful for his coaches who has made him a part of this great season that Berkeley is having.”
Tracey knows the road back is a long one still and his son has a long way to go until he can take the mound again for the Stags in 2015.
“Patience is the thing Brad has to have. There aren’t many days that go by that I’m not sending him a text asking, ‘How’s the elbow feel?’ or ‘How did the 180 feet feel today?’”
Tracey is grateful for his son’s recovery. No parent likes to see their son in pain. He’s also thankful for the Stags family that has stood by his son during his rehabilitation and recovery.
“I personally would like to thank all of our baseball family from years past and present who have sent well-wishes, prayers and words of encouragement.”
This coming February, 2015 and the start of the Stags’ baseball season is still months away, but Brad is patient. He knows his time is coming and he knows he’ll make the most of his second, and last chance.
“I’ll be ready,” he said. “And I’ll make the most of it.”
“No regrets,” Brad said.