There is never a good, convenient or opportune time for a pitcher to need Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
But for Willie Eyre, a 1996 graduate of Cyprus High who was in the process of becoming a key middle reliever for the Texas Rangers last season, the timing couldn't have been worse.
Eyre was finally being given the chance to pitch on a regular basis in Major League Baseball after spending several years in the minors of the Minnesota Twins organization. He was enjoying a breakthrough season in 2007 and was on his way to transition from middle relief to more of a closer role for the Rangers shortly after the All-Star break.
But that's when nagging pain in his throwing arm became unbearable.
"It was really frustrating," Eyre said in a phone interview last week. "I was throwing really well until about the middle of July. That's when they told me I would be throwing more in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. As a reliever, that's where you want to pitch. That's when it was really starting to hurt."
Eyre was no stranger to arm soreness. He said he dealt with it periodically during the previous four years. But this was different. No amount of warming up and stretching would take the discomfort away. He'd throw one inning and be in excruciating pain.
He also lost command of his pitches. A pitch meant to fool or be away from a hitter would end up over the middle of the plate. He would attempt to throw a pitch over the plate, and he'd have no idea where it was going to end up.
Last August, Eyre decided to find out what was wrong. He met with a specialist who found that Eyre had a partial ligament tear in his right elbow. Eyre was told that his best option was Tommy John surgery. The procedure basically reconstructs the elbow, as Eyre had a tendon taken out of his knee to replace the partially torn ligament in his elbow.
"He said I could throw until it blows and I'd need the surgery," Eyre said. "He said I'd end up needing the surgery anyway. We're a religious family, so I sat down and prayed with my wife and decided to do it."
Eyre was frustrated with having to put his career on hold for what is usually a 15-month rehab process, but he has remained positive during the ordeal. One couldn't blame him for being bitter. He had spent seven full years in the minors before the Twins gave him a chance to pitch in the show in 2006. He signed with the Rangers prior to the 2007 season, and they immediately showed faith in him.
Eyre threw in 33 games last season, started in two of them and was set to be considered for the team's closer role. He went 4-6 and had a 5.16 earned-run average. He is under contract with the Rangers until the end of next season.
"I was getting to where I wasn't going to have to fight for a job in the big leagues," Eyre said. "I had my foot in the door. But everything happens for a reason. I'm very optimistic I'll be back in the big leagues as soon as I'm all healed up."
Eyre is currently in the process of getting all healed up. He is rehabbing in Surprise, Ariz., the home of the Rangers' extended spring training camp. Other than the stifling heat he's dealing with, he said things are going quite well.
He works out at the ballpark every day, starting around 7:30 a.m. He puts heat on his arm, stretches and gets tissue massages to get everything right before he throws. He plays catch and alternates weight workouts between his upper and lower body. He has bullpen days, and he runs. He's done working out every day by 11:30 a.m.
It's an easy schedule compared to what Eyre has dealt with in fighting his way through the minors and in pitching in the big leagues the last two seasons. It has allowed him to spend a lot of quality time with his wife, Rachel, and his two children. His wife is due to have their third child in November, and he credits Rachel for helping him in his recovery, especially in the first couple of weeks following his operation.
In March, Eyre was able to see his former high school baseball team, Cyprus, play in a tournament in Arizona. He bought more than 30 tickets to a Rangers-Giants spring training game and gave them to the Pirates' players and coaches. He also signed the tickets he gave to the high school players. Cyprus coach Bob Fratto estimates that Eyre has given him about 15 sets of cleats in the last two years to pass on to his players.
Fratto said the Rangers have obviously seen something in Eyre, not only as a pitcher but also as a person, to provide him with the opportunities they've given him. Fratto, who had to convince Eyre to pitch when he was at Cyprus, has no doubt Eyre will be back in the big leagues when he's finished with his rehab.
"He'll be back because he'll work hard," Fratto said. "It took him a long time to get there, and I know he was frustrated with his lack of movement up the Twins' chain. He had a taste of it (MLB), and he'll work his (butt) off to get back. It takes a special kind of something inside you to take all the steps it takes to make it, to be married and live in the minor leagues to get there ... I don't think this will slow him up."
Eyre recently had a minor setback in his recovery, a bout with triceps tendinitis that was remedied with a cortisone shot. If all goes well, he'll likely start pitching to hitters again in August or September, play in a fall league and then be ready for spring training next year.
The success rate of Tommy John surgery is about 85 percent. Eyre has seen firsthand that it is possible to come back from the operation. His brother Scott, a reliever for the Cubs, had Tommy John surgery 13 years ago."Each week there's another step. I'm able to throw more pitches, mix in a curve ball every now and then," Eyre said. "To build on that every week is encouraging. I'm very excited, and very confident that I'll get back to the big leagues."