NPR

Bob Ojeda: Pitching Through The Pain

Over the course of his 14 years in baseball, Bob Ojeda threw more than 1,000 strikeouts and countless pitches across the plate.

The lefty, who spent most of his career with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, retired in 1994 after winning a World Series in 1986 and leading the American League in shutouts in 1984.

During that entire time, his left pitching arm hurt.

"For more than three decades, whether in Little League or the minor leagues or Fenway Park in Boston, there was pain," he wrote in a recent New York Times article. "Sharp or dull, in the elbow or at the shoulder. Throwing fastballs as a kid or junk as a lefty trying to stay in the big leagues, it all led to pain. It would be dulled by aspirin or beer or more powerful cocktails of medicine and booze. But it would never leave."

The pain Ojeda experienced is typical for a pitcher in the major leagues, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Then when I started to throw in the bullpen in Houston to get loose, it literally felt like sandbags were added in my elbow.
Bob Ojeda

"Pitching is an all-encompassing motion," he says. "The act itself is sort of violent and completely unnatural. I think most pitchers certainly feel a level of pain."

Ojeda says the amount of pain he experienced depended on what type of pitch he was throwing. A change-up — which required little energy — wasn't so bad. But sliders and curve balls would wreak havoc on his elbows, and fastballs really hurt his entire arm.

"Fastballs required the most energy," he says. "That was the one that if I misfired at all ... that put the maximum 'wow' factor in the ow."

The 1986 World Series

In 1986, Ojeda pitched a complete game against the Astros in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. The Mets won, 5-1, but Ojeda left the field with an injured arm. He was scheduled to pitch again during Game 6, so the team doctor injected him with a vial of cortisone.

"Once I did it, it didn't feel much better," he says. "But then when I started to throw in the bullpen in Houston to get loose, it literally felt like sandbags were added in my elbow — like an added product in there, and it took a while to get it out of there. I really couldn't make the ball do what I needed it to do."

Eventually, the pain wore off and Ojeda was able to pitch normally against the Astros and then the Red Sox in the World Series. But cortisone wasn't a long-term solution — it was just a temporary way to mask the pain. Long-term solutions would have involved rest — something Ojeda wasn't willing to do when the World Series was on the line.

"At that point, it was my dream — it was my father's dream too — and I would have paid that price any day of the week," he says. "You could not have kept me out of there. I would have done anything and accepted the consequences. I didn't do them and think, years later, wondering why I did that. I did them fully conscious of what I was doing and what I was risking, but it was worth the risk — I got a chance to go to the World Series. This was my dream since I was a little guy making up my own uniform because I loved the game so much."

Recovery

After the Mets won the World Series, Ojeda was diagnosed with a chipped bone in his elbow.

"Most pitchers have debris in there; that's just part of the business and part of what you do," he says. "This particular large piece broke off and was scraping the nerve, and that was the problem. That was why the shot alleviated the pain temporarily — allowed me to continue — but when I came back in the spring of '87 ... a couple of sessions into it, I realized the year was over."

Ojeda had surgery and spent the next months on the disabled list. It was a brutal experience, he remembers.

"It is like being on the outside looking in, and there's a party going on, and they can't see you, they can't hear you, you're invisible and you feel invisible — and part of you doesn't want to be seen or heard because you're not a part of it," he says. "Good, bad or ugly — you're not a part of it. It's an awful place to be. But it actually drives you to get back out there. And the sooner I could go back out there, the better."

When Ojeda returned, he was in pain — but it was a different kind of pain.

"It wasn't that locking pain," he says. "So I knew the end of the season was there ... and that was my thing. I just had to get back out there before going through another winter with the question of, 'Is this going to work?' "

Ojeda pitched for several more years, ending his career with the New York Yankees.

"I was pretty much waiting for the tap on the shoulder, and sure enough, the tap comes," he says. "I'm not a very emotional-type person, and it's not this big ceremony. It's like, 'We gotta let you go,' and you go, 'OK,' you grab your gear and head out the door. I wasn't glad it was over, because it was the funnest thing I ever did in my life. My goodness, I played baseball for a living — that's ridiculous. But it was a relief, in that I didn't have to wait for the tap on the shoulder. It's here. There it is."


Interview Highlights

On conducting recon against other teams and pitchers

"In warm-ups, I had to throw all the pitches. And in between innings, they're noticing, 'He's not throwing this in his warm-up pitches.' So they note all of that stuff — if you've backed off on a certain pitch, and they'll adjust their approach to you accordingly. So part of the beauty of the game is that I keep having to trick them physically as well as mentally. I have to let them know that I've got all my weapons today, so you've got to pay attention to all of them."

On pitching with his entire body

"The hand and arm go up well above the shoulder, and that's where the unnaturalness of it comes. And then you have to deliver that pitch forward with whatever effort physically that you're able to use that day. When you see a pitcher's front side go a little too soon, take notice of his arm, his shoulder — the one that has the arm attached to the ball. And you'll see a tremendous amount of separation there, where the ball is completely behind the whole front part of his body, and at that point, that's probably the most dangerous part of the delivery. Before you deliver it, [the] front foot has landed, and you are now driving and torquing towards home. The key is to not let your arm drag too far behind, because that's when that shoulder opens up and injury is certainly a viable option right then."

On how the windup has changed

"I used to copy Sandy Koufax — he was my guy — and guys of that era. You'll notice that in eras of baseball, the deliveries are kind of the same. They're similar in certain aspects of it. But nowadays — today — because of the sexiness of lighting up a radar gun, you see a lot of max-effort type deliveries. Those are violent deliveries, those are disjointed deliveries — and in my opinion, one of the reasons why you have rampant arm injuries. Because the arc of pitching has been lost on the radar gun."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We produce our show in Philadelphia, and our team, the Phillies, has an alarming number of players on the disabled list, including Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay. Lots of athletes live with pain, but they don't necessarily talk about it.

But my guest, Bob Ojeda, wrote an article in the New York Times last month that was all about the pain he dealt with as a Major League pitcher. Actually, the pain dated back to his Little League days. His article about the glory and pain of pitching is called "My Left Arm."

Ojeda pitched for the Mets from 1986 to 1990. He was the lead pitcher in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, the game in which a loss for the Mets would have meant losing the series. The Mets won that game and the championship. Ojeda also played for the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees.

In 1984, he led the American League in shutouts. Bob Ojeda is now the pre- and post-game analyst for the Mets.

Bob Ojeda, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BOB OJEDA: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So you were basically always in pain. Is that typical for a pitcher?

OJEDA: I think by and large a lot of guys experience different levels of pain or discomfort or just uneasiness with an arm or a leg or a knee or a back or a neck. Pitching is an all-encompassing motion, and I think a lot has to do with genetics. But I would say by and large because the act itself is sort of violent and completely unnatural, I think most pitchers certainly feel a certain level of pain and whatnot.

GROSS: Violent and unnatural. So here's what I'd like you to do, if you could do this, if you could kind of take us through a pitch, just through all the motions of a pitch and tell us what it's doing to your arm as you go through the motion.

OJEDA: OK, well, what you do is - I'll go right from the beginning. I mean, I'm looking down at my catcher. He gives me a sign. I OK the sign. I step on the rubber, and I begin my turn, my motion, my entire delivery. And the whole idea is you're throwing with your entire body. And then, you know, you lift your leg, you turn, and all - you know, there's a million different deliveries, but the part that most of us have in common is your hand and your arm goes up well above your shoulder, and that's where the unnaturalness of it comes.

And then you have to deliver that pitch forward with whatever effort physically that you're able to use that day. The trick to the whole thing is your front side. You do not want your front side to fly out too soon, your glove-hand side. If that does, when you see a pitcher's front side go a little too soon, take a notice of his arm, his shoulder, his - the one that has the arm attached to the ball, and you'll see a tremendous amount of separation there, where the arm is completely behind the whole front part of his body.

And at that point, that's probably the most dangerous point of the delivery. Before you deliver it, front foot has landed, and you are now, you know, driving and torquing towards home. The key is to not let your arm with the ball in it drag too far behind because that's when that shoulder opens up, and injury is certainly a viable option right then.

GROSS: So what was the pitch that strained your arm the most? I don't mean the individual pitch, I mean the type of pitch.

OJEDA: For me it was, you know, the fastball, because that required the most energy. That was the one that put the maximum wow factor in the ow, if you will.

GROSS: And what was the pitch that you could most easily fall back on, on bad days when you were in pain?

OJEDA: My go-to was the changeup. That was one that the delivery is exactly the same, but the power, you know, the energy that I was talking about earlier, is completely devoid. That's the trick to that pitch. The motion has to be the same, but I just have to remove all the power from that thing, and in that case it would hurt the least.

Sliders can be very nasty on an elbow. Curveballs can have that same effect in the elbow. But I would say by and large the fastball is the most painful if you misfire.

GROSS: So do you think batters could read whether you were in pain and therefore which pitch you'd be throwing?

OJEDA: Well, that's a very good question, and that's the trick, is to - I have to throw all my pitches on any given day and not let him know what's going on. There's a lot of, a lot of recon going on in how I even do my...

GROSS: Right, right.

OJEDA: ...how I do my warm-up pitches in between innings. Believe me, they're noticing, wow, he's not throwing this in his warm-up pitches, because I'm on the mound in front of the other team during the game. So they note all that stuff. Well, he's backed off on this. As the game progresses, they'll notice if you've backed off on a certain pitch, and they'll adjust their approach to you accordingly.

So a part of the beauty of the game is I have to constantly keep trying to trick them as much physically as I do mentally. I have to let them know that, no, I've got all my weapons today, so you better pay attention to all of them.

GROSS: Has the windup itself kind of changed in the past few decades?

OJEDA: It has, and my particular theory is all little kids, we emulate what we see on TV or we see at the ballgame. And I used to copy Sandy Koufax. He was my guy, so my delivery - and guys of that era. You'll notice in eras of baseball, the deliveries are kind of the same. They're almost similar in, in - in certain aspects of it - there's always the individual take on them.

But nowadays, today, because of the sexiness of lighting up a radar gun, you see a lot of max-effort type deliveries, and those are violent deliveries. Those are sort of disjointed deliveries, and in my opinion one of the reasons why you have rampant arm injuries, because the art of pitching has been lost on the radar gun.

And I think it's returning a little bit when you have, I think, you know, I'll delve into it, is the lack of chemical enhancements on these bodies. You're not able to come back from those tweaks that you were able to come back when steroids were a part of the game.

GROSS: Ah, interesting point. So you think now that you can't use steroids, the windup is different?

OJEDA: Well, the thing about - yeah, I've never used them myself, but the word on the street is they help with recovery. So if you have a max-effort violent delivery, it may not help you throw harder long-term, but short-term it'll help you, and then if you can take something to bounce back quicker, no one's the wiser, and you're able to go on with it.

But I think what you're seeing now is one of the most popular pitches coming back in baseball is the changeup, and that is a pitch that across the board everyone knows is the least stressful. And you don't see as many guys throwing 97, 98 miles an hour as they were there for a while.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is retired pitcher Bob Ojeda. One of the teams he used to play for was the Mets, and he's now a pre- and post-game analyst for the Mets. He wrote an article recently in the New York Times about his arm and pitching, and it was called "My Left Arm," and it was about the glory and the pain of pitching.

So take us back to 1986, Game Six of the National League Championship Series. You were pitching for the Mets against the Astros, and you pitched a complete game and a five-to-one victory against the Astros, and your arm really hurt. And the doctor said that your only option was a shot. So tell us what happened.

OJEDA: Well, at that point, you know, I threw the game in Houston. Then we came back, and I was scheduled to throw a bullpen. You pitch your game, and then you usually take a day off or two or then throw a bullpen session. That's where you practice out beyond the wall there. We have a whole mound set up.

And for me, it was at a point where that session just wasn't going to happen. If I got through it, I don't recall exactly if I got through it. I probably did because I was still - I could not let on to anyone, other than that circle of myself, my trainer and my team doctor, the only three who knew anything. So I probably, you know, went through my session and, you know, said yeah, no, I'm fine, everything's good.

But after that, I confided with the trainer that we've got to do something, and that was when the plan by the doctor was for me to go down and meet him in Washington and get the shot. Because that was the only thing left at that time. I'd never taken any pills other than anti-inflammatories, and there's - at that point I'd already tried quite a few different ones, and I was just about out of rope. So the only thing left was the cortisone in the elbow.

GROSS: So how much did it help?

OJEDA: Once I did it, it didn't feel a whole lot better, but then when I started to throw in the bullpen in Houston to get loose, it literally felt, and this was a sensation I'll never forget, it felt like sandbags were inserted in my elbow. It just was this added product in there, and it just took a while to get it out of there.

The first inning, it was just, it was in there, and I couldn't, I really couldn't make the ball do what I needed it to do. After that, it began to - it literally began to just dissipate through there, and eventually it felt much better. By the time I was out of that game, I believe fifth or sixth inning, I felt it had been a success. That shot worked for me.

Now, they're not long-term solutions, we knew that going in. I knew that going in. This is a temporary fix to alleviate the pain in that area and to, you know, help clear things out, I guess. I'm not an authority on cortisone. But whatever it was intended to do, whatever it was supposed to do, it worked for me, at least temporarily.

GROSS: But here's the thing. It always seems like it's a tradeoff, like if you get the shot and it works for you temporarily, so you could go back in the game, are you trading off long-term the ability of your arm to actually really heal?

OJEDA: Potentially, but at that point this little guy from that town in California, growing up with a dad who this was his dream and my dream as well, I'd pay that price any day of the week. And I did.

GROSS: To be in the series and keep pitching.

OJEDA: Oh gosh, yeah. At that point you could not have kept me out of there. I would have done anything. I would have done anything and accepted the consequences. I didn't do them and then, you know, years later, oh, you know, why did I do that. No, I did them fully, fully conscious of what I was doing and what I was risking.

But it was worth the risk. I got a chance to go to the World Series. This was my dream since I was a, you know, a little guy making up my own uniform when I was five years old because I loved the game so much. So no, there was nothing I wouldn't have done, you know, legally, to stay out of those games.

GROSS: So how did you do, and how did the Mets do in the series?

OJEDA: We did pretty good. We did pretty good. I had the biggest game of my life after that game in Houston, after the shot. We were down two, went to Boston, and I really, I threw a great game, seven innings, I didn't give up anything. So that was by far the greatest game I ever pitched, the most emotional game I'd ever been in, not knowing what was ahead of us, not knowing what was ahead, but I knew at that particular point, we lose Game Three and we're in deep trouble.

GROSS: So soon after this, you were diagnosed with a chip the size of your thumbnail in your elbow. What does that mean?

OJEDA: That means a piece of your elbow bone area in the - right in the elbow area, right where you hit your funny bone, that is the ulna nerve, a piece of the elbow in there. And most pitchers have little debris in there, that's just part of the business. It's part of what you do.

This particular large piece broke off and was actually scraping the nerve, and that was the problem. That's why it was not going to heal. That was why the shot alleviated the pain temporarily, allowed me to continue, but when I came back the spring of '87, after a couple months off, which I never took a couple months off after the season ended in October, I started throwing with my father, and you know, a couple of sessions into it, I knew I was - I knew the next year was over.

I knew it. The same exact pain was there, and there was no - perhaps I was going to try to Band-Aid it, which I did, but I knew that this one - going into a season, I was never going to hold up. I knew it. It wasn't the end of the season where I said, look, I can just hang in there for a couple, three, four more games. This was like I've got 35 starts ahead of me, it ain't happening.

GROSS: So you had surgery.

OJEDA: I had surgery, yes. I got examined. The doctor said I can scope it, or we're going to have to open it up and move the ulna nerve. Scope, he would've gone in with a little incision and basically blew up the chip and cleaned it out. And I said, well, what's the rehab on that?

He said, well, if I scope it, you're six weeks. If I open you up, you're out for the year. I said, well, let's scope it. He said: If I scope it, it's got a 10 percent chance of working. I said: Good, I'm really thrilled with 10 percent. Let's go. So he goes: Listen, I've got to talk to your doctor. So he calls the doctor right there in front of me, and he told him: I do not recommend the scope.

And then I got in the phone with our team doctor, Dr. Parks(ph), a wonderful man, he's passed on now. I said, you know, I want the scope. He said, look, it's not going to work. And he convinced me. I said, all right, today's - whatever day it was - I said two days from now I want that surgery done. And he said, OK, I promise you.

So I flew back to New York, he did the job, and then I began my rehab.

GROSS: My guest is former Major League pitcher Bob Ojeda. We'll talk more about pitching and pain after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Bob Ojeda, who pitched for the Mets, the Red Sox, the Dodgers and the Yankees. He recently wrote about the glory and pain of pitching in the New York Times. When we left off, we were talking about the problem he had with his elbow in 1987 that led to surgery on his ulnar nerve. It took him out of the game for most of the season.

So what do you do when you're on the injured list? How do you spend your time, outside of physical therapy? And how does it feel to watch the game that you can't play in?

OJEDA: It's brutal. It is like being on the outside looking in, and there's a party going on, and they can't see you, they can't hear you. You're invisible, and you feel invisible, and part of you doesn't want to be seen or heard because you're not a part of it. You're not able to go out there and be a part of it.

Good, bad or ugly, you're not a part of it. So it's an awful place to be, the disabled list. It's terrible. But it actually drives you to get back out there. And the sooner I could get back, the better. That was why I began my rehab as soon as possible, and originally it was three days a week, and I told the lady, I said no, we're doing this five days a week, seven days a week, whatever it takes.

So I really pushed the envelope to get back because it was for my own selfish reasons. I didn't like being on the outside at all.

GROSS: How did it go when you went back?

OJEDA: I wound up coming back in September. I threw a couple games, I think I started a couple, and it did not feel good, but it was a different kind of pain. It wasn't that same - it wasn't that locking thing that was going on.

So I knew - I knew the end of the season was there. There again, I said earlier, I can tough it out for three or four starts or what have you, knowing that winter was right around the corner, and that was my thing. I just had to get back out there before going through another winter with the question mark of is this going to work. So as much as it hurt, I still knew it worked. I still knew the original type pain I'd been having was gone.

It was a new pain, but I just attributed that to obviously the surgery and all that.

GROSS: So in your article in the New York Times about your arm, you wrote: Relationships between pitchers and their arms are unique, focused partnerships full of fear and pain and trust and hope. Did you see, like, your arm as almost separate from your body, as this like separate entity, this separate like personality that had to be kind of catered to and pleased and that, you know, if you did the right thing, it would work for you and like your life depended on this arm, and you know, you had to bow to it in every way? You know what I'm saying?

OJEDA: Well, yeah, I know exactly what you're saying, and it's an important appendage that you can't do without to do the job you love, to do the game you love. There's this symbiotic relationship, without a doubt. You certainly do pay a lot of attention to it, and you learn how to adapt. I would never sleep on my left side, as a matter of fact, because I did one time, and my shoulder - I had a lot of problem with my shoulder after I slept on that.

So there's certain things you do. Your life revolves around that. You have to alter what you do as an everyday person as to not aggravate that thing you count on.

GROSS: How did you know it was time to end your baseball career?

OJEDA: Emotionally I was done. Emotionally, really - my shoulder was shot. I knew potentially another surgery was on tap, and I just didn't want to do it anymore. I reached a point where for me I had to be all in, and that all in was 100 percent. I had to want to get you out 100 percent. For me, 89 percent, 98 percent was not going to get you out. I had to be all in, 100 percent. I wanted to get you out, and I want to get you out in the worst way.

Once I lost that, once I lost two percent of that, I was done. I didn't have that burning desire to get you out that I needed to. And the end came emotionally before it became - before the end came physically.

GROSS: So what was that last game like for you?

OJEDA: Well, besides being lousy on the mound, I think the last day, I was at Yankee Stadium and I pretty much - I was waiting for the tap on the shoulder. The way it usually ends, you get a tap on the shoulder - back in the day, anyway. You're sitting by your locker, you're actually a little reluctant to get dressed because you know you're failing. You know it's a matter of time.

And sure enough, we're at Yankee Stadium, the tap comes, says Skip wants to see you. And that's - you know, I know at that point it's not we're pushing you back a start. We're, you know, it's been nice knowing you. So it's very - you know, I'm not an emotional-type person. It's very - it's not this big ceremony. It's like, hey, we've got to let you go. It's like, OK, I'll see you later.

You go, you grab your gear, and you head out the door and don't look back. I was in a sense relieved. I wasn't glad it was over because it was the funnest thing I ever did in my life. I mean, my goodness, I played baseball for a living. It's ridiculous. But it was a relief in the sense of, like, I don't have to wait for the tap on the shoulder, man. It's here. There it is.

GROSS: So does your arm still hurt?

OJEDA: Yes, it does, but I don't got to try to throw a baseball anymore. Ironically, when I would coach, I coached with a good friend of mine, Rich Gadman(ph), I would throw a bullpen for fun with him. We're old. This was, you know, six, seven years ago. You know, it's something you miss being able to do, but it's something that I've moved on from because it's just life.

GROSS: So were you watching the game when the Phillies pitcher Jose Contreras tore something in his elbow and it looked like he was really in pain?

OJEDA: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: What did you think about when you saw that?

OJEDA: Well, you just cringe. You cringe because, one, it's horrible for any human, whether you've pitched or not, to watch another human hurt himself like that. But in my case, when you know pretty much kind of what that feels like, it makes it even worse. It gives you the, you know, you get a little squeamish watching that, and you tend to look away rather than - there's no curiosity from a guy who used to play who had some pain. I know what it is, and I'd just as soon look away.

GROSS: Bob Ojeda, thank you so much for talking with us.

OJEDA: Terry, it was my pleasure.

GROSS: Bob Ojeda is a former Mets pitcher who is now the team's pre- and post-game analyst. You'll find a link to his New York Times article about the glory and the pain of pitching on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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