The technical name for the operation is ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, but most sports fans know it by its more familiar name, Tommy John surgery.
John was the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who underwent the then-radical procedure in 1974, in which a tendon from his right elbow was transplanted into the left elbow of his pitching arm.
For John, the surgery was an unqualified success. After a rehabilitation period of more than a year, he returned to the mound with the Dodgers in 1976 and went on to pitch through the 1989 season.
The surgery has extended the careers of hundreds of collegiate and professional athletes over the past three and a half decades, most of them baseball pitchers.
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And in the bullpen of the Hickory Crawdads resides a powerful young right-handed reliever who hopes his name can one day be added to the list of stars who have undergone the surgery and come back stronger than ever.
Matt Nevarez, who stands nearly 6 1/2 feet tall and weighs 220 pounds, looks like an unstoppable athlete, the power of his body exceeded only by the burning desire in his eyes.
After an outstanding high school career in San Fernando, Calif., Nevarez was selected in the 10th round of the 2005 free-agent draft by the Texas Rangers.
Assigned to the Texas affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League, Nevarez instantly looked like a good investment to the Rangers' organization as he posted a sparkling 1.61 ERA and struck out 24 batters in 28 innings.
In 2006, Nevarez reported to spring training with high hopes of advancing in the Texas organization. Instead, he found himself battling elbow pain for the entire season and managed to appear in only one game.
The young hurler hoped that a winter of rest would be the cure for the ailing elbow, and he went to spring training in 2007 with renewed confidence.
That confidence was shattered when, in his first spring appearance, he knew he had finally “blown out” the troublesome right elbow.
“The pain at first was not that bad,” he recalled. “But the next day, I could barely lift my arm. I knew what was wrong.”
Nevarez also knew that a ligament transplant was the only hope for continuing his baseball career. “It was tough,” he said. “It was a reality check. I didn't know if I would ever pitch again.”
In the surgery, a tendon was taken from Nevarez's left knee and placed in his right elbow. Nearly 15 months of grueling rehabilitation followed, during which he had to rebuild the strength in his pitching arm and his knee.
With his body restored, Nevarez returned to the mound for the Spokane Indians in June 2008, finding that it was his mind that troubled him now.
“That was the most nervous I have ever been,” he said. “It was more than nervous, really. It was absolutely nerve-wracking. You don't know how your arm will respond. You don't know if the pain will return. But it comes to a point where you just have to go out there and let loose.”
That 2008 campaign brought ups and downs, as the rehabilitation process does for almost all pitchers. Overall, however, the season was a good one, as Nevarez posted a 4-2 record and recorded 50 strikeouts in just 43 innings.
So far in 2009, it looks as if Nevarez is completely back from the surgery. He is the primary closer for an impressive Crawdads' pitching staff. As the end of May neared, his ERA was a minuscule 1.26, and he led the team with five saves. His strikeouts-to-walks ratio was an impressive 3-1.
So what are his goals for the remainder of 2009?
“I have only one goal,” he said, smiling. “Only one goal that matters. I want to stay healthy. I want to stay healthy and give it everything I've got.”
The 'Dads are home today against Hagerstown in a 3 p.m. contest. Home games against the Suns are also slated for 7 p.m. Monday and 11 a.m. Tuesday. ... After a brief road trip to Greensboro, the Crawdads play host to the Grasshoppers on Saturday, next Sunday and June 8. The first 1,000 kids through the gate on Saturday will receive a free replica bat. ... The 'Dads will face the Kannapolis Intimidators on June 9 and 10 before heading out on the road again. ... The three hitters who have carried the Crawdads through the first third of the season? Mike Bianucci, Erik Morrison, and David Paisano, all of whom were batting over .300 as June neared.