DUNEDIN — It’s a baseball history lesson no player ever wants to get too familiar with: Who’s this Tommy John guy and what’s his deal?
Delving deep into these details usually means a scalpel’s about to do some in-depth exploring of its own. In its aftermath lies a series of challenges over the next 12 to 18 months — tests of patience, motivation, perseverance.
It’s a process Dunedin High senior Eric Sexton never imagined he’d find himself going through.
He and his father, first-year Falcons coach Ron Sexton, took all the standard precautions, including monitoring appearances, keeping tabs on pitch counts and treating the arm before and after throwing.
But then it happened.
One summer day last June, Sexton’s left elbow just gave out.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said recalling the moment that immediately changed his baseball life. “I had two strikes on the hitter and I threw a strike, a fastball, right down the middle. The hitter took it. I was feeling good, and bam. I had a tingling down my arm, the burning sensation, I knew something was up.”
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The “bam” Sexton felt was his ulnar collateral ligament essentially tearing from its natural position between the ulna and humerus. That was officially confirmed in the coming week after consultations with local athletic trainer Randy Holland, co-owner of the Winning Inning in Clearwater, and Toronto Blue Jays orthopedic surgeon Steve Mirabello.
“It was devastating,” Sexton said of receiving the magnetic imaging resonance results he feared. “My brother [Alex] was coming in this year as a freshman and it’s been something I’ve been looking forward to my entire high school career, being on the same team with him.
“And then with my dad coaching, I knew this was going to be special. And obviously pitching is the strongest part of my game.”
“I was the last guy in the world that ever thought this would happen because I was always the overly protective dad,” Ron Sexton said. “But I truly believe that if it’s meant to happen it’s just meant to happen, because I was the careful dad and he was the careful kid.”
Sometimes that just doesn’t seem to matter, Holland said of the injury. He regularly works with players from high school to Major League Baseball coming back from Tommy John, some who’ve always thrown with textbook mechanics and on limited pitch counts since youth ball. “It’s interesting because nobody’s immune to this, nobody’s really got a good fix on this thing yet and I don’t think we ever really will.”
Regardless of how it happened, Eric Sexton found himself at a crossroads at 17, prior to his senior year of high school even beginning.
Physically, considering the extent of his injury, the options were cut and dry: get the ligament replacement operation known as Tommy John surgery or likely never pitch competitively again.
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Sexton wasted little time responding to the physical scenario. He was on Mirabello’s operating table on June 20. “I knew the only chance I had to play and pitch my senior year was to get the surgery right then,” he said.
Pulling the trigger on that decision was the easy part, though. While Tommy John surgery typically means a pitcher isn’t getting back to normal on the mound for at least a year, Sexton’s desire to play ball is far from finished. “There’s a bigger picture for Eric and hopefully that’s college,” Holland said.
Equipped with a hearty, healthy ligament from his hamstring laced up inside his left elbow, the true tests came next.
“So much of it has to do with these guys having a positive attitude,” said Holland, who previously worked 18 years in the Blue Jays organization. “And Eric was so positive from the get-go.”
Sexton’s commitment to the rehab program and his optimistic, focused desire to get better helped get a baseball back in his hand at the four-month mark.
First it was 15-foot soft tossing in a batting cage from one knee to rediscover his arm slot. A month-and-a-half later Sexton was throwing from the slope of mound, creeping back toward the rubber a few feet every couple weeks until finally getting there about six months after surgery.
He made his first live appearance in the Falcons’ annual preseason Red and White intersquad game on Jan. 31 – seven months and 11 days post-surgery. Though he went only one inning, Sexton then started Dunedin’s first regular season game on Feb. 11 against Land O’ Lakes.
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Working on a strict pitch-count, Sexton has made eight appearances this year and tossed a total of 18 1/3 innings. He’s produced a 2.29 ERA and struck out 25 batters over that span, while also hitting .314 with 15 RBIs at the plate. Sexton handles first base duties away from the mound.
As Sexton’s senior season nears its end, another process complicated by his injury is being worked through with the same positive outlook that’s gotten him this far in recovery.
Sexton, who had a number of Ivy League programs’ attention during a showcase last year, said he intends to go the junior college route as he gets himself back to full strength. As a fluid lefty throwing in the low-to-mid 80s with a sharp-breaking curve and good stuff, he appears to have himself on the right path.