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My Tommy John Experience: Mitchell McIntyre

Indiana State Sycamore Mitchell McIntyre talks about the physical and mental struggles he has dealt with on his road to recovery.

Mitchell McIntyre is someone whose story sheds light into what it means to not only go through Tommy John surgery and rehab, but to be separated from the game of baseball for an extended period of time. His struggles range from physical (regaining velocity and returning to his pre-injury form) to mental (how he defined himself). It is a fascinating look at someone who was once at the precipices of professional baseball, and is now trying to claw his way back. If you have had Tommy John surgery and would like to participate in this series, feel free to email me at shawnbrody9@gmail.com, or DM me on Twitter (@ShawnBrody) to let me know.

Shawn Brody: When were you told of your injury, and how did that feel?

Mitchell McIntyre: Let’s see, I remember I had just gotten home. This would’ve been two summers ago, I had just gotten home from playing in the Cape Cod League on a [temporary] contract. I got released because A) I really didn’t throw too well, and B) I couldn’t straighten my arm.

So, I came back home to Wichita, got an MRI, and it was about July 10th or 11th. I remember my mom came home from work and came downstairs and told me what had happened. I kind of stopped pretty much everything I was doing, went out to the living room and sat on the couch, and stared out into empty space for about ten minutes. I didn’t quite know how to respond, it was more of a shock than anything.

In my mind, it really didn’t make sense that I was able to throw with a torn UCL. I’d seen other guys tear their UCLs; typically you hear of somebody having a pop in their elbow. That had never happened to me. I remember [those guys] would tear them and not be able to even throw the next pitch, whereas the day before my surgery I played catch with my little brother out to 120 feet with no pain because I wasn’t necessarily putting that much effort into throwing the ball. So, it was definitely shocking—it blind-sided me.

SB: A lot of people, in general, when they think of Tommy John, they think exactly that—just one pop, and then your arm is done. Your case is the same as mine. Even around two months after I was told that I had torn mine, I was playing catch with my brother as he was warming up for a game. It’s one of those misconceptions that I don’t think people realize. It isn’t always something you see immediately. It is something that can happen over time, not affecting some as much as others.

MM: Yeah, no doubt. I actually think mine happened, at least, almost about two months prior to when I was notified. I remember I pitched in a conference tournament game in junior college, when I went to Iowa Western. I was pitching against Indian Hills, it was about the third or fourth inning. Before the game my arm didn’t feel that great, but in the third and fourth inning I was really wavering on throwing pitches, curveballs. I wasn’t necessarily able to give intent with my pitches, in any of them. The crazy thing about that, though, is I ended up pitching eight innings. I was actually named the JUCO pitcher of the week, even though I firmly believe that is when I tore it. Everything was just, it wasn’t the same. You could tell.

Mitchell receiving recognition for his start against Indian Hills

SB: Would you say that you lost velocity, or that you lost command/control?

MM: Both. I felt like I was, pretty much, just aiming for the middle of the plate and wherever it went, it went. I remember I pitched the weekend after that, against Kaskaskia, and it was pretty much the same thing for me. Throw some fastballs down the middle and let them put it in play. You can kind of get away with that in Junior College. When you’re out in the Cape, it doesn’t quite work like that.

SB: What do you attribute to your injury, that is, how do you think that it happened?

MM: I think there are a lot of factors that come into play, obviously, when it comes to tearing your UCL. I remember that after my freshman year I went to Wichita State, and basically got told that I didn’t throw hard enough. So, I spent that summer really focusing on trying to throw hard. I was playing long catch, looking into weighted ball throws. That was really the first time I had felt elbow pain, so maybe there was a slight tear that happened there.

I had one outing that summer where I threw a complete game shutout with zero strikeouts—and I couldn’t throw anything but a fastball. Like I said, my arm was hurting, so I was just throwing 80 mph fastballs right down the middle. Maybe I overworked myself on long toss. That could’ve been one factor.

Another factor is, I really don’t see myself as that strong of a person. Some of the research that I’ve looked into [says] that one of the biggest things protecting your UCL is your Flexor Pronators in your forearm. Even now I really don’t feel like my grip strength is that great. That’s something I’m working on, to this day. Back then, I was definitely still not as strong with my grip as I am now.

SB: When you were told that you needed Tommy John, what was your initial reaction?

MM: My initial reaction was, “how much is it torn?” You hear of guys taking different methods; nobody really wants to sit out the 1+ years that it takes for the rehab time. With mine, it was cut and dry. I had a 90 percent tear, it was hanging on by a thread. I remember the doctor described it to me as rope that had just broken down to its last thread.

There’s not a whole lot you can do in that situation besides Tommy John Surgery. I kind of came to terms with it, and actually ended up having surgery three days after I found out. It was nice that I was able to get done what I needed to as fast as possible.

SB: Did you ever waiver on having the surgery, or struggle with hanging it up?

MM: For me, hanging it up was not an option because that year at Iowa Western was pretty much my first time ever getting pro looks. I received all the questionnaires from teams, talked to a couple of scouts, etc. It really seemed like pro ball was within my reach. That was the first time I had ever thought that playing pro ball was a possibility because, out of high school, I never really threw that hard. I didn’t have any outstanding characteristics besides a big curveball.

I just wanted to keep fighting toward that dream to play pro-ball, and to see how far baseball could take me. So hanging it up, like I said, was never in the cards.

Mitchell at a pro-day for the Cape Cod collegiate summer league

SB: With the surgery, usually there are a lot of things that you’re curious about or you’re not sure about. Going into it, what were your short-term expectations for the surgery and rehab process?

MM: I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to face, especially with the rehab process. That’s a whole other beast. The mentality-side, being away from your teammates, that’s a big blow, as well. I guess I wasn’t near as prepared as I wish I was for what I was getting myself into. You hear all the stories, how Tommy John is some magical cure that helps you throw harder than before surgery. When you actually look up that information, however, that is false. In fact, when it comes to Major League guys, you typically throw a little bit slower.

So I had that in mind, but I’ve always been a confident person. I guess I just thought I was going to be the poster-boy of coming back to throw harder. I just figured that I’d work hard, everything would come into place, and 12 months later I’d be right back out there playing.

SB: When you were told you needed Tommy John, what were some emotions that you struggled with before the surgery?

MM: I think the biggest thing I struggled with was calling my coaches here at Indiana State and telling them what had happened. You know, guys invest money in you when it comes to scholarships. It is tough to tell somebody that you won’t be able to contribute anything for their investment in you. I was really, really nervous about that.

The other thing that was a little bit difficult was calling my Junior College coach, Marc Rardin, and telling him what had happened. My last outing at Iowa Western I pitched in the Junior College World Series against Northwest Florida State and got absolutely hammered. I gave up five runs in the first inning and got pulled. I felt, or I hoped, that it gave somewhat of an explanation for what, in my mind, was letting our team down.

You get a little disappointed and you feel like, if you were healthy, you could’ve done a lot more. I knew that I definitely wasn’t pitching healthy, but I still wanted to help my team—I had helped them the prior two weekends. It was just letting [my] coaches know. The disappointment factor, I would say. Which, they handled it pretty well. A lot better than I was expecting.

SB: Again, I think that is something people don’t realize. When you’re told, you have to make calls and say, “Hey, this is what happened.” In both of our cases it was a call of “Hey, this is why I didn’t pitch so well, I have explanations.” I think that is something people don’t really understand. You never want to go out there and just do poorly; you don’t want to let people down who are watching you. To have a feasible reason [for struggles] that is not just an excuse, it helped take some of the burden off. To know that it wasn’t just your fault, it was anatomy doing its thing.

MM: Right, right.

Mitchell pitching at Iowa Western

SB: What emotions did you struggle with after the surgery, during your rehab and now that you are playing?

MM: It’s really the distance factor from your teammates. Last year was pretty tough. You go through the rehab process of going to see the trainer. In my case I would go see a trainer two times a week. You get the scraping done on your forearm or your scar. You go through all the rehab exercises, trying to strengthen your forearm, getting your arm to straighten back out completely from being in a cast for two weeks and the brace for a month after that.

In a way, it felt like I wasn’t part of the team. I hung out with the guys a decent amount the first semester, but in the second semester when the season rolled around, it wasn’t quite like I was even on the team. It wasn’t like I was necessarily part of something—which is why you do anything you do. You want to have a purpose. You want to be part of something bigger than yourself.

SB: Would you say that you felt alienated?

MM: Yeah, yeah, a little bit. But I felt like most of it was myself doing it. I had plenty of opportunities and invitations to hang out with guys, but you just feel down at times. You feel like you’re in a fog. I remember feeling like my head was in a fog for a lot of that second semester last year. Not really having a purpose besides showing up to the weight room to lift and playing catch out to like 90 feet, whatever my rehab program wanted for that week. Even then, I remember that summer, when the 12-month anniversary rolled around. I expected to be fully back within 12 months. You hear of guys coming back from Tommy John within 12 months, sometimes even earlier. You want to be one of those people. When you’re not, it’s frustrating.

I spent my last summer out at Driveline, in Seattle. For my exit bullpen, I remember I threw a fastball at 79 mph. I probably hadn’t thrown a fastball at 79 mph since my freshman year of high school. That was a real gut check. You see all the videos of guys from Driveline during their exit videos hitting 93 mph or 94 mph, and it was like, “Damn, I’m not anywhere close to where I need to be right now.” That was a big gut check, and a bit of a morale killer. But I still knew I needed to fight.

SB: You mentioned that you went through life in sort of a fog that second semester. Do you think that was because baseball came to define who you were?

MM: Yes, no doubt. It felt like I had lost a part of me. Just like you said, when you have baseball define you, and you lose that ability to be a somewhat good baseball player, you feel pretty lost. It was like I was a normal student, but still had to show up to team practices and whatnot. I didn’t really contribute anything to the team. Spent a lot of my off time just trying to get my mind off baseball. To find ways to escape. Whether it was watching hours of Netflix or whatever. It was tough. Even earlier this year it was tough. Like I said, when I came back to school here in the fall I was probably only throwing about 83 mph or so. I was struggling to throw a curveball for a strike.

You put so much time and effort into something, and when it doesn’t go your way, you get knocked on your ass a little bit. But, in a way, I guess you could say that it helped me grow as a person. My Junior College coach, he would always say to us, “You gotta learn how to handle success, and you gotta learn how to handle failure.” I feel like handling failure has been a major part of this process.

Slowly but surely I’ve grown, but it has been tough. Grades haven’t been near as good as what they should be; effort in classes hasn’t been what it should be, quite honestly. Thankfully I’ve had helpful teachers that allowed me to turn in late work to make that up, because I think a lot of them knew that I understood the concepts. But, when you become detached, you find ways to distract yourself from what is bothering you. My distraction was Netflix, a lot of Netflix.

SB: Would you say that you became depressed?

MM: That is hard to say. I suppose I could have been depressed, but, at the same time, I was still optimistic about things. Maybe I shut myself out from a lot of the people outside of my immediate family and friends, but it is hard to determine that. I never went to see anybody to determine that, but who knows. I definitely had some time periods where I was just laying in bed, looking at the ceiling, and thinking about all the things that hadn’t gone my way. At the end of the day, you kind of just realize how fortunate you are. There are seven billion people in this world, and [I’m] fortunate to even have a roof over my head. You just have to take things into perspective, when it comes to that matter. But that is still tough to do.

SB: Do you feel that going through Tommy John surgery and the recovery process caused you to resent, hate, or feel angry at the game of baseball?

MM: I never really resented or hated baseball. I’ve always loved baseball. I have been wanting to learn more about coding because I want to pursue a job in baseball, in a front office, whenever my playing days get over. I’ve always loved baseball. I think the hardest thing for me was being jealous of other people. It is the other people that can make baseball look so easy. Not just the superstars; even just your normal major leaguer makes a task as simple as throwing a 95-mph fastball look so easy. When you’re struggling to throw 80-mph, it’s tough. You get jealous.

Even now, I saw a tweet [the other day] of Charlie Morton throwing 99 mph, and everything looked so simple. You try and replicate that as much as you can, but it is really a testament to how much skill and time that they put into their craft. You just have to try and be better.

SB: So you’re saying it more changed your perspective on the game than anything?

MM: Yeah, I guess it really changed my perspective; maybe I wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was. It was more of a reality check. You either have to be better, or shut up. That is kind of the process I have taken this year. I haven’t played too much this season, and it is easy to complain about the coaches not playing you, playing someone else, etc. But, at the end, of the day you have to be so good that they have to play you. So good that you’re going to be noticed by a scout. So good that you’re going to get a promotion in the minor leagues, or whatever you’re hoping to accomplish. You just have to be better. I suppose having surgery really helped in that regard.

SB: We touched a little bit on the physical therapy that is required to come back from Tommy John surgery; let’s talk about your physical therapy from a more personal perspective. What kind of struggles did you deal with, in terms of physical therapy, trying to get back to where you were?

MM: I think it was just trying to teach myself how to throw a baseball again. I remember my first catch session. It was like 30 feet and 15 throws, something along those lines. I might’ve hit my partner with 5 of the 15 throws I threw. It was rough. Everything felt so unnatural. Your muscles are getting some strain that they haven’t felt for so long—it’s weird. Throwing a baseball after surgery is flat-out weird, and borderline uncomfortable.

The physical therapy side, going to the trainer, for example, wasn’t necessarily that hard for me. The scraping, as I’m sure you know about, was not a lot of fun. That was always painful, but necessary. The throwing side and just feeling almost out of your skin was the hardest part.

SB: Were there every any days where the rehab was harder than others, and did motivation play a role in that?

MM: Definitely, and it goes back to that foggy state. When you’re not seeing that instant gratification, it’s hard to go on with something when you’re not seeing results right away. You show up to a weight session training and maybe you’re not giving as much effort as you should be, that can really backfire on you. Showing up to therapy and half-assing it, skipping reps or not doing a full rep, you have to keep the goal in mind. You have to essentially have a purpose every day.

Obviously you have some days that are tougher than others, but for me I was keeping my goal in mind of getting drafted the next year. Coming out and being dominant. The days I had my mindset I worked at my highest level. I feel like I had that mindset most days of rehab. But when you’re throwing and it’s uncomfortable, it’s tough. You feel pretty disheartened, that’s for sure.

SB: So you talked about training with Driveline in the offseason, how much did that help you in the recovery process?

MM: I think it helped me take a major stride. You work with a lot of people across the country, you get to hear other stories. When I was at Driveline, there was a guy there who told me he had two Tommy John surgeries—that just blew my mind. I was talking with him a little bit, then he threw a bullpen where he was sitting like 90-91 mph and it was like “wow, this is possible. I’m seeing living proof.” Of course, you have the great trainers there—Cody, Taiki, Matt—you have a lot of great dudes out there, just as a whole. College guys that come from across the nation. I definitely felt like it helped me get where I needed to be, for the next step.

Was I disheartened in my exit bullpen where I threw a couple at 79 mph? Yes, but I don’t blame them for that. It’s not their fault. I guess, in a way, maybe that is how my recovery was intended to be in the first place. Everyone’s body recovers at different speed, mine was apparently slower. But, yeah, Driveline was a great experience. In a way, I wish I would’ve taken a little more advantage of the resources that I had at my disposal there.

SB: What was your biggest fear in coming back from Tommy John?

MM: The fear that my arm wasn’t going to come back. That fear lasted all the way into this season. The fear that I’m going to comeback topping at 85 mph instead of 93 mph, like I was prior [to surgery]. When you’re topping at 85 mph, you can kiss pro dreams goodbye. I guess that was the real fear, kissing my dreams goodbye. And that was tough.

This season even, in late February we played against Mississippi State. I pitched against them for an outing that lasted five pitches. I threw five fastballs that all registered from 84 mph to 86 mph. At that point I was somewhere around 18 months out of surgery, and I’m nowhere near what I was in Junior College. That was tough. I was really down after that point. It was like, “well, at this point most people at least have their velocity back. I know I don’t have command back, but I don’t even have velocity back, at this point.” I had to keep fighting through it. To find some way to throw hard; some way to get better every day.

Luckily that ended up happening. I remember I threw in a scrimmage, in practice at the very start of April. I hit 90 mph, and topped out at 91 mph, for the first time since surgery. That was definitely a milestone for me. I still remember that day. I think I was crying in my car a little bit, it finally felt like I made it. Avoiding that disappointment of it’s not going to be what it was before.

Mitchell pitching for Indiana State

SB: Do you wish someone would’ve warned you what it was like? What Tommy John surgery and the recovery process was going to be like, in terms of frustration, the emotional stuff you dealt with, and the physical pain you had.

MM: Oh yeah, oh yeah. That was something that I kind of got advice about what it was going to be. I heard people tell me that I might get down a little bit from my teammates being away, but you never really grasp that from somebody telling you this who has never had the surgery. What I really wish I had was someone that had had the surgery that told me, “Hey, you’re in for a battle here. You don’t quite know what you’re getting yourself into,” but still to be positive about it. Tommy John, while it is a beast on its own, it is able to be conquered. Plenty of people have done it. You have to have the right mindset and a goal every day. You have to have a purpose every day for what you’re doing. I really wish someone would have walked me through that.

I was telling you about that fog I went through. I think the biggest reason for that is that I wasn’t busy, and I wish someone would’ve told me that you have to find a way to stay busy. That you’re not going on a bus ride with your teammates to yadda-yadda town to play a three-game series. You’re staying at home, you’ve got to find something to do. I wish I would’ve been told that, because that might’ve helped me not define myself as a baseball player. To, maybe, find another way to define myself. My biggest advice to anybody that has surgery of any kind that is going to keep them out for a significant amount of time is to stay busy. Definitely stay busy, that is the number one thing for me.

SB: You’ve mentioned that you felt like you lost yourself. Do you feel that you have now found yourself, and a greater meaning of yourself, than just in baseball?

MM: I suppose so. Quite frankly, there is no way I’m going to get drafted this year. My pro-playing prospects are a lot farther down than what they were from Junior College. But, you know, you start thinking about life after baseball and you realize that, while it does suck, it’s life.

That is a tough question, though. I’m still really trying to grasp onto that dream of being a pro baseball player. Even to this day, I’m still absolutely set that I want to play pro baseball. I know that my velocity is back, my curveball is back, and my command is getting there. But, the more I think about it, I still define myself as a baseball player.

SB: Your scar, do you consider it a badge of honor, a reminder of a sense of failure, or a relic of growth? Also, did you get a tattoo?

MM: No tattoo, my parents aren’t too keen on them, but I thought about it. You get the ole’ cliché baseball seams on your arm. My scar is more of a reminder of what I’ve been through. It’s going to be something one day that I show my kids and say this was one of the toughest parts that I went though, in my life. Maybe be able to find some way to be able to relate it to what my Junior College coach always told me—to handle success and handle failure. That has been the greatest lesson out of this surgery as a whole—learning to handle failure. That everything is not going to go your way.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and a pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Junior majoring in Business Management and Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com