SPRINGFIELD, Mo — Baseball is a numbers game: 90 foot paths, marked by 15 inch bases. Batting averages, slugging percentages, and runs batted in, display in bright lights, and shine from the outfield.
There’s an island in the center. A holy ground of sorts. The ignition point for a battle that rages 60 feet, 6 inches away at home plate, every game.
In 2015, Missouri State’s Nick Petree stood tall on the rubber, demanding the attention of giants. The 2012 Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year, had been picked by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 9th round of the 2013 draft. He climbed his way back to Hammons Field to play for the Springfield Cardinals.
His right handed delivery had brought him back home. But with every pitch, and every waning inning, his love for competition slowly gave way to the numbers. His baseball career, eliminated by another statistic.
“I knew the pitch,” said Nick Petree. “It was the 2nd inning of a game, I knew. I didn’t know what was wrong with it at the time, but I knew there was something wrong with it.”
“I walked back in, and by the time I walked back in I really couldn’t straighten my arm,” said Petree.
Nick Petree’s freshman season at Missouri State was spent in rehab, recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“Initially, I never had any arm problems. Maybe it’s just something small. I thought I would just run, then wake up feeling better, good to go. But that obviously wasn’t the case.
Repairing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow, was a surgery first performed on major league pitcher Tommy John by Dr Frank Jobe back in 1974. Initially, it was a surgery reserved for the professional elite, but in recent years, has spread like an epidemic, reaching even the youngest of athletes.
The UCL, is a ligament in the elbow that connects the humerus bone to the ulna bone in the forearm. In a lot of ways, its a lot like a rubber band. Every time a pitcher throws a baseball, the rubber band, or ligament, stretches. Over the course of a season or a career, that ligament can experience tears or snap, and that’s what requires surgery.
In a study done at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, the surgery increased over 6-fold among their medical staff at the turn of the century.
According to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, the surgery has increased over 9% each year since then, and from the years 2007-2011, over 56% of its patients, were teens between the ages of 15 and 19 years old.
“Since pitchers are starting out younger, getting better, and pitching more and more, the rate of injury has gone up accordingly,” said Dr. Chris Miller.
Dr. Chris Miller is an Orthopedic Surgeon with Cox Health in Springfield, and shadowed Dr. Frank Jobe in Los Angeles after his 5 year residency.
“Most commonly, we will take a tendon from the wrist, called the palmaris longus, make an incision along the elbow, drill tunnels in the ulnar bone and the humerus bone. Then we weave that tendon in and fix it in place, basically replicating the course of the native ligament.
After the surgery, the body begins the long process of turning that tendon into a ligament.
“A tendon attaches a muscle to bone, and a ligament attaches 2 bones together,” said Dr. Chris Miller.
And as a result, a long, 1 year rehab is necessary for players to return to the mound.
“Once I started going through the rehab, it was just a long drawn out process. It was physically demanding as well as very very mentally demanding,” said Petree.
“It was definitely the 1st time I religiously did arm care. In High School, you just go and do whatever. I would run and do ice, but never the exercises,” said Nick Petree.
The ASMI reports that more than 80% of athletes return to their original level of play, and Nick Petree was no exception.
“I was throwing 85-88 in high school, freshman year it was 89-91 here and there,” said Petree.
He went on to become the Valley Freshman of the Year in 2011, and the 1st in program history to become the National Player of the Year in 2012. The icing on the cake, was being drafted by his hometown team.
“It was a dream come true,” said Petree. “When you’re a kid, you’re trying to be the greats you see on TV. /// For it to come true, and for you to make the next step, it was awesome.”
But his time wearing red and white, was short lived.
“It makes you realize that you cant take any day for granted and that it could end at any moment,” said Petree.
“It wasn’t one pitch. Through the entire year I’m guessing. I didn’t really know until after the end of the year. I got an MRI. That one was kind of drawn out.”
Petree, was forced to retire at the age of 25, with his 2nd UCL tear.
“It’s heart breaking to hear that information, but injuries happen,” said Petree.