CLEARWATER, Fla — Things move slowly in baseball. It’s a lot like golf or carpentry — not an impatient man’s game. When you move too quickly or try too hard to do too much, things probably aren’t going to go your way. It sounds incredibly counterintuitive but it’s not. You really have to focus on the details.
Dustin McGowan has spent half a decade on the details. He’s spent what should have been the prime of his career not rushing anything. He’s worked through every throwing program, every slow build of arm strength, every rehabilitation exercise — he’s done it all carefully and assiduously so that one day, maybe, he can do his job again.
Today he said he was ready to try things out.
“I’m feeling good. A lot better than I thought I would be right now,” the 31-year-old said on a cold Sunday morning. “I’m very excited. But I’m a little nervous too, because it’s been so long.”
McGowan’s story is tragic and familiar. The can’t miss prospect; he threw hard and with life like you wouldn’t believe. In the big leagues by 23 and striking out nearly a batter an inning by 25. But then there was the labrum surgery in 2008 and the knee surgery in 2009. The rotator cuff surgery in 2010 and arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder in 2012. A setback here, a freak foot injury there. Save for a 21 inning cup of coffee at the very end of the 2011 season, McGowan hasn’t pitched consistently in the majors since George W. Bush was president.
You feel bad for him; everyone feels bad for him. He was so promising and worked so hard, and he seems like a kind, genuine person. It’s really tough asking him questions because his career has been so incredulous and agonizing. Dutifully, he does his best to downplay the staggering madness of it all.
“I can’t speculate and say if something wouldn’t have happened something would’ve gone different,” McGowan said. “Things happen.”
It’s crazy, what he’s been through. But in some ways, it’s exactly what is supposed to happen to everyone who professionally throws 80-100 baseballs at a very high velocity every five days. When pitchers fall apart it is not a flaw in their design; it is the design.
We often lose sight of the fact that human anatomy is not constructed to do this flawlessly. Nature didn’t intend for men to throw baseballs this hard and this often for this long. It’s unnatural. Shoulders and elbows and wrists are dynamic and functional, sure. But they’re delicate, too. Like anything, they’re just collections of atoms and when you stress atoms too much they rupture and fail and break apart. It’s life.
So when your occupation in life is based on putting tremendous stress on those very elements of your being, you do what you can. You bring your arm along slowly in spring training. You spend a lot of time on foam rollers. You get massages and ultrasound treatments. You throw side sessions and bullpens and long toss and on and on. It’s all meant to keep the components of your arm operational for as long as possible. But it’s all really just delaying what is painfully inevitable.
There are surgeons in the game who will tell you that if you open up the shoulder of any major league pitcher you’re going to find at least something. Fraying tendons, inflamed tissue, deteriorating cartilage, whatever. And there are pitchers in the game that will tell you they never really feel perfect. You’re always sore. The first couple days after you pitch are the worst and it gets a little bit better on day three and four. Then on day five you rally and go out there to pitch again. Being sore is a part of the job and if you complain about it too much people will say you’re not tough or you’re injury prone, and those are labels that can cost you dollars and cents come contract time. You just deal with it. It sucks but you’re not the first guy to do it and you won’t be the last.
So then you do the math. How many more outings can I pitch through this pain? How long until the off-season? If I get this operated on, how long will the rehab take? How do I time this right so I don’t lose my job?
Having surgery is a tremendous risk. You sacrifice your time which, in this game and in life, is really all you have. You never know if you will still be as effective when you eventually come back. Operations are performed by humans so there is inherently a chance they will bungle it or the procedure won’t have the desired effect. And, unless you’re among a very small, elite group of pitchers in this game, there’s no guarantee your spot in the rotation or the bullpen will still be there when you return. In fact, it’s very likely that it won’t. There is no shortage of guys like you.
And that’s just the physical. You still have to live in your head at all times — thinking, wondering, considering, obsessing. Mentally, when you feel you’re losing grip of your faculties and the ability to do the only thing you’ve ever done to make money, it’s hell.
McGowan has been to that hell over and over again. He doesn’t talk about it much because he doesn’t want to draw attention to it. But what he has been through is far from easy. And, tragically, its become his normal.
“It doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve been through it so much, it’s kind of second nature to me,” McGowan said of the mental hurdles he has to clear as he recovers from operation after operation. “I know it’s part of the process so over time I’ve learned to deal with it.”
So, on Tuesday, McGowan will climb onto a mound here in Dunedin and throw some pitches. It’ll be the first time he’s done that in a year. It’s not the pitching that he’s worried about — he knows he can do that. It’s the next day and probably the one after that as well. How he feels then will tell him whether he can do this or not, whether he’s paid enough attention to the details.
“I’ve taken it slow,” McGowan said, bitter Florida air ripping around him. “Now it’s time to test it.”