When Jonathan Worley stepped onto the mound for the Eau Claire Express on June 19, 2019, he thought he was ready to finally let it fly.
It had been four years since Worley had last toed the rubber in a meaningful game. He thought he was finally healthy, but his body still was getting over the hurdle of two Tommy John surgeries.
“I do trust my arm,” Worley said. “But I think that in my body, there’s some disconnect ... where subconsciously it’s hard to let it go for a while.”
Confidence is the last thing to come back for athletes who have been under the knife after a catastrophic injury.
For baseball players, there’s almost nothing worse than hearing those words: “Tommy John surgery.” It’s a season-ending surgery of the elbow’s ulnar collateral ligament and it often requires a year’s worth of rehab.
Worley first heard the words in 2016, just two pitches into his senior baseball season at High Tech High in San Diego.
Months earlier, he had been throwing in a tournament in Georgia when he felt a pop in his elbow.
“Initially I thought I had dislocated my elbow because it felt like something jerked out of place,” Worley said.
He was fortunate it was only a partial tear, but when he felt it pop again, during his senior season, his high school career came to a sudden end.
“I never had any elbow pain or anything like that before,” Worley said.
He said he had done everything he was supposed to do. He limited his innings, never threw more than 75 pitches in a high school game, but it still gave in.
When he heard the diagnosis, he broke down.
“I definitely remember crying,” he said. “It’s this big thing and I had never been injured to that extent before. So I remember the first time, I was very disoriented.”
Rehab forced him away from the game he loved. He couldn’t go out and play with his teammates or throw a baseball like he used to. Instead he spent his time building up his strength.
“I definitely thought about quitting,” Worley said. “When it’s all you want to do but it’s out of your reach, that makes it really hard.”
Finally, in the fall of 2018, pitching at Stanford, Worley was preparing to make his return to the mound. He was supposed to be back with the Cardinal to start his sophomore year, but something felt wrong.
“I started to feel some pain in that inside elbow area,” he remembered.
“It was some slow burning pain and every time I got on the mound it kind of got worse.”
He’d wait a few days for it to go away, but after each outing the pain would take longer and longer to go away.
Eventually, he decided he needed to get it checked out. Again, he heard those dreaded words. He partially tore his UCL, but his doctor told him it wasn’t going to heal on its own. If he wanted to fix it, he’d need surgery.
The second time was a little bit easier for Worley. He said he knew what to expect and knew how to handle the situation. He took his rehab day-by-day, setting milestones for himself to work his way back.
Now, this summer with the Express is about getting back onto the path he was on before the injuries struck. At the time of his first injury, he was considered amongs California’s best pitching prospects. The baseball scouting service “Pitch Perfect” rated him a 10 out of 10 on its player rating system, meaning he had the potential to be a “very high draft pick and/or elite level college prospect.”
Getting back to 100% is going to be tough. The body’s first UCL is always its best UCL, according to Stanford assistant athletic trainer John Ursome. Research suggests that the tendon used in a UCL reconstruction, usually taken from the palmaris longus muscle in the wrist, only lasts about seven years before it snaps again. And for Worley, who is on his third UCL, crafted from the gracilis muscle in his thigh, his risk of re-injury could be even greater.
But Stanford is confident in him. When he shows up at school in the fall, they’re going to treat him just like the rest of the pitchers.
“I think he’ll get back to where he was,” said Thomas Eager, an assistant baseball coach with the Cardinal. “He may not ever be the person he was in high school, not good or bad, he could be better, but he just needs to get comfortable with who he is now and trusting the process.”