As the Durham Bulls glide into June, a share of the credit for at least 11 of their wins goes to Jordan Norberto, a lefthanded pitcher on a road to recovery that is part of the larger story of baseball today.
Tommy John surgery, which means hope and heartbreak to pitchers with serious arm trouble, is the short name for an elbow procedure developed in 1974, a surgical operation seldom required by anyone except baseball pitchers.
After more than 16 abbreviated game appearances from the Bulls’ bullpen, Norberto’s recovery following an empty 2014 season seems to be proceeding at a natural pace.
“It’s more frustrating. You have to do everything right to come back strong,” said Norberto, who saw major league time with the Oakland Athletics before signing with the Rays organization.
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“He’s a fully competitive pitcher, with some guidelines, some structure,” said manager Jared Sandberg. “He was a dominant pitcher when he was up there with the A’s, and we’d really like to see him get back to that point.”
Norberto, from a small town in the Maria Dominica Sanchez province of Dominican Republic, has become something of a hometown story for the N.C. Triangle.
His mother left the country when he was still a kid and moved to Raleigh. He would visit before coming to the states at age 17, already a professional ballplayer in the Arizona Diamondbacks development system.
“Some guys from Dominican, and guys coming from a small town like me, it’s hard for us too, because we don’t know how to order our food.”
He has settled, calling North Carolina home. He recently purchased a house in Wake Forest, where he lives with his family.
Tommy John surgery has a mystique that sets it apart from other sports medical procedures. It has allowed some pitching careers to continue blooming that would otherwise have died on the vine. For other pitchers, a major surgery like Tommy John has marked the end of the trail.
Recovery is not assured, and it is a part-myth that pitching arms come back stronger than before the injury.
Norberto, who said he had other offers when he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, said the reputation of their physical therapy and rehabilitation staff played a role in his decision to sign.
“What we do, what a pitcher does, isn’t natural. We weren’t made to do it,” observed Kyle Snyder, pitching coach for the Bulls.
Major League Baseball launched a campaign to educate young pitchers and coaches about preventing future arm problems, manly by keeping track of how many pitches a kid throws in a game, and setting limits.
Last year, Rochester High School in Washington caused a minor stir in the baseball world when a kid pitched for 15 innings and 194 pitches. Major league limits are usually capped at around 120 pitches per game.
David Price, pitching ace of the Rays (before his trade to the Detroit Tigers) weighed in via Twitter, with a warning to “be a little smarter”.
The kid Tweeted back to defend his coach, who eventually responded to media attention by saying he would have rethought the decision.
Norberto’s surgery was performed Dr. James Andrews, who reconstructed Kyle Snyder’s arm in 2004.
“He’s another guy that said, ‘When you’re there, don’t rush it. Go step by step, listen to the trainers,’” said Norberto.
Norberto was ready to go before Saturday’s home win against the Syracuse Chiefs.
He came in during the seventh, hitting 91 on the stadium speed gun and varying his speeds down as low as 82. He allowed two hits,and Sandberg came to pull him out after less than 20 pitches.
Sandberg said the pace of Norberto’s comeback, how much he throws and how often, is proceeding under internal guidelines from the Rays medical and training staff.
“It was all structured down in Port Charlotte,” he said. Feedback from the player, and what his arm tells him, also is key.
But when he goes out, he competes at full volume.
“Kyle Snyder and myself, we trust him as a competitor,” Sandberg said. “The fastball can be really good at times. He’s had some control issues, but he’s got the devastating off-speed stuff to go along with the fastball.
Norberto said it is all about listening to your body and controlling your throw.
Snyder had the surgery in 2004 as a high prospect with the Kansas City Royals. He felt his arm give out on a pitch, and knew after one more that he was in serious trouble.
“The two-plus hours that you’re under the knife and the surgeon does his job, that’s the only time you’re not in control of your recovery,” Snyder said.
Gradual soreness, not a single “blowout” throw, led to Norberto’s diagnosis. He underwent the Tommy John procedure — replacement of an elbow ligament — in 2014, and had a second, follow-up surgery to clear bone spurs from his elbow.
Norberto suggested that young pitchers should do a lot of cardio to strengthen their chest and leg muscles. He makes cardio conditioning a central part of his workout and recovery.
“It’s painful physically, and emotionally it’s a frustrating time for a player. But there’s a lot of things you can take away, if you have the wherewithal to do so,” Snyder said.