TORONTO – A year that began with a common platelet-rich plasma injection into his sore right shoulder will end with Jesse Litsch awaiting the location of a donor cadaver for a last-ditch bone graft surgery aimed at saving his pitching career.
The odds of success are uncertain for the former Toronto Blue Jays right-hander, who needed one operation to treat an infection that resulted from his PRP shot in February, and another in June on his biceps tendon.
His third surgery in what will likely be a span of about 12 months (depending upon when a suitable donor is found) will graft bone and cartilage onto the back of his right arm and shoulder, helping to compensate for the cartilage lost as a result of the initial infection.
No matter what happens, the procedure will improve his quality of life – things like lifting his right arm above his head, picking up his 11-pound dog, and sleeping on his side all cause him pain – but the chances of the free agent being able to pitch professionally again are unknown.
"As the doctors put it, ‘If you want to play baseball again this is what you have to do.’ Of course all I want to do is play baseball, so I was like, ‘If we’ve got to do it, let’s do it,’" Litsch says in a recent interview.
"I sit here and think about it, and it could be something ground-breaking, it could be something that helps other people in the future, too, I’m pretty pumped about that. The doctors are very skeptical about it – they’re hoping it works."
The procedure, which Litsch is hoping to have in the next two months, is typically reserved for older people and tends to withstand the typical rigours of day-to-day life. How his rebuilt arm will hold up to the demands of throwing a baseball though, is more difficult to gauge, and he’s intent on trying to resume his baseball career.
Litsch says he was told by his doctors, Anthony Romeo and Brian Cole at Chicago’s Rush Hospital, that "they’ve never had, to their recollection, this done before to a baseball player that has to be throwing the ball at high speeds numerous times a day," which may push his case into uncharted territory. Dr. Romeo, his primary physician, could not be reached for comment.
"This is a very interesting case because I have to come back and throw a baseball, that’s my livelihood," says Litsch. "They said at worse it will alleviate the pain and I’ll be able to sleep at night without pain, that’s obviously a plus, but the way I see it, I want to be back playing and that’s my ultimate goal.
"They’re pretty sure I’ll be able to throw. But being at the professional level, at that intensity, is something they’re not sure about. They basically told me we can’t give you a percentage, we can’t give you anything that tells you that you’re going to make it back. At this point this is the best thing to do if you want to make it back to baseball, but there are no guarantees."
Litsch fell into such a precarious position remarkably quickly, as just in February he was in camp with the Blue Jays trying to win a spot in the bullpen after finishing out 2011 strong as a reliever.
Then came the shoulder pain and the PRP injection, which led him to miss the whole season and has forced to him to start thinking about options beyond playing in the event he can’t make it back.
"It honestly takes a toll, but to be a competitor it’s worse not to be out there playing," says Litsch. "Mentally I’m strong, I’m good, I’m trying to stay in shape the best way possible, I’ve got a lot of people helping me out with that, and keeping me mentally focused on everything.
"I’m unemployed right now because I’m not going to be able play next season. It’s tough in that regard knowing that what you’re used to isn’t expected next year. I’m going to be rehabbing without a job and to make it to the next season, 2014, is the ultimate goal.
"For now I sit in limbo. I don’t know what to expect out of anything."
At this point, all that Litsch – 27-27 with a 4.16 ERA in 88 games, 67 starts, over parts of five seasons – can do is wait for a call telling him a donor cadaver with a similar bone structure has been found and that surgery within 30 days is scheduled.
Once that takes place, he and his doctors will be feeling their way through the rehabilitation.
"They have a protocol for older people, but not for people who come back to where I have to be back pitching, throwing 90 m.p.h. again, if I can hit that anymore. It’s a different process because of the physical nature of what I’m doing," Litsch explains.
"It sucks not knowing, but hopefully it works, not just for me, but if somebody else has this in the future. If it helps, one, two, three more people that would be great, I would be ecstatic about that."