By JOE McFARLAND
A.J. Burnett. Jason Grilli. Chris Carpenter.
They are three well-known baseball names with Alberta connections (Burnett and Grilli pitched for the Calgary Cannons while Carpenter suited up for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays). But they also have something else in common. They are among the hundreds of baseball players (and dozens of Major Leaguers) who have had Tommy John surgery.
The procedure requires moving a healthy tendon from an arm or leg to replace an arm’s torn ligament. It’s named after a former MLB pitcher, who missed the entire 1975 season to fix his elbow. He ended up playing through the 1989 campaign. One statistic shows 80% of players return to pitching at the same level as before the surgery.
Nick Vickers is hoping to be among those returnees.
The Calgary native is in the middle of the lengthy rehabilitation process after undergoing the surgery in October. He is red-shirting in his junior season at Virginia Tech.
“Mentally, it’s pretty frustrating,” Vickers told Alberta Dugout Stories. “It’s tough to watch, especially when you’re watching the team on the weekend and you feel like you should be out there or you could be out there contributing and helping.”
He just recently started another phase of the process. The Henry Wisewood High School grad spent six weeks in a brace before going through nearly six months of flexing and strengthening. He’s now begun throwing the ball three days each week and will eventually progress with more throws and potentially from greater distances.
“It’s definitely testing me,” Vickers admitted. “But I’m definitely lucky to have teammates here who have gone through it. They’ve drilled it into my brain that I need to be patient.”
“I need to take my time,” he continued. “I need to do everything right and need to pay attention to every single detail so that it doesn’t come up and bug me again.”
THROUGH THE PAIN
The pain in Vickers’ arm first started last spring when he was playing with Colby Community College. But playing through the pain is nothing new to any athlete, so he powered through.
“I just felt kind of uncomfortable and it kind of built up,” Vickers said. “It started as a small thing and I got it looked at, took some time off and didn’t really think much of it.”
That lingering sensation stuck through his Western Major Baseball League season with the Okotoks Dawgs. But it wasn’t awful enough to put him on the sidelines. He also had his commitment to Virginia Tech that he didn’t want to miss out on. He talked to a lot of people about it and the consensus seemed to be that a little rest would take the pain away.
But then the fall came.
“I’d be picking up stuff with my left arm and I could feel it,” Vickers described the day-to-day struggles he started to face. “It was bugging me with all kinds of things. It was constant pain in my elbow.”
While others said it was nothing, he wondered how much worse it could get. So he had it checked out, leading to his October surgery.
“It’s pretty miserable,” Vickers said of the discomfort. “I mean it’s one of those things where you definitely know.”
The difficulties he has faced have taught him to put the game into perspective.
“Don’t take the game for granted,” the 6-foot-2, 200-pound southpaw said about what he’s learned going through Tommy John surgery. “It cane be taken away from you right away. Just have fun every single day. If you’re not having fun, I don’t know why you would play.”
FUN SO FAR
Baseball hasn’t really come quick or easy for Vickers. Unlike others who were playing at a young age, he thinks he was 10 or 11 when he finally started playing the game he now loves.
“I was a basketball and soccer guy,” Vickers laughed. “My parents didn’t really want me playing T-ball or anything because they didn’t feel like there was necessarily enough action. So they wanted me playing soccer. I was getting the cardio and I was a decent soccer player at the time.”
That’s not to say he didn’t have baseball on his mind though. He said his parents still exposed him to the game through some hitting and they would play catch with him. But it wasn’t until he got into the Rocky Mountain Little League circuit when the switch was flicked. But even then, he wasn’t pitching.
“In Little League, I was actually a catcher,” Vickers said. “But being a left-handed catcher doesn’t really have a tonne of potential to get into the high school or college level.”
So he started as an outfielder when he got his start with the Dawgs Academy in Okotoks. He still pitched from time to time with Dawgs Red in bantam and found some success.
That’s when things took off for the Toronto Blue Jays fan, who deemed Vernon Wells his idol as a hitter and Roy Halladay as a pitcher. (“Stroman’s the guy now,” he admitted.)
Vickers represented Team Alberta four times as a youngster and moved up play for Baseball Canada’s Junior National Team in 2015.
“It was obviously a pretty exciting time for me,” Vickers beamed. “That was pretty much my goal going through high school. It was a dream that I didn’t know was achievable when I was younger.”
He also got to play alongside some familiar faces, including Jackson Wark, Peter Hutzal and Mike Soroka.
“It’s really exciting watching that guy have success because he’s just a tremendous person as a whole,” Vickers said of the Atlanta Braves prospect. “One of the humblest, nicest guys I’ve ever played with. When I made the Junior National Team, he was the first guy to text me and congratulate me and tell me how excited he was for me.”
What we’re seeing on the field from Soroka, who has made three appearances for the Triple-A Gwinnett Stripers, comes as no surprise to Vickers, as they were also teammates for Team Alberta.
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“From a talent side, he dominated when I played with him,” Vickers said. “Now he’s a role model, someone I really look up to and aspire to be.”
Returning to baseball hasn’t been the only thing on Vickers’ mind as of late.
Earlier this week marked the 11th anniversary of what’s known as the Virginia Tech massacre. On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks before taking his own life. At the time, it was the deadliest shooting carried out by a lone gunman in American history, sparking the debate about gun violence, gun laws and mental health.
Vickers went by and took in the memorial held at his school. Everyone from classmates to teammates was talking about what happened.
“It’s just crazy to think about it,” Vickers stated. “I’ve never been exposed to something of that magnitude so just to see how it brings everyone together and how everyone is so supportive of the people who lost their lives that day … it’s pretty eye-opening.”
The school also celebrated the grand opening of the renovated English Field at Union Park last week.
Vickers will have to wait until next September to see if he’s able to finally make his debut with the Hokies at the newly-minted park. That’s when he will be able to go back to his doctor to be cleared to play again, as he wants to see if he has what it takes to get to the next level. It was one of the reasons he chose Virginia Tech to begin with.
“I know coaching was a big influential factor, as I’ve had good experiences with a lot of really good coaches,” Vickers said. “Number two was having the ability to pitch at one of the highest levels you can pitch at. The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) is one of the top Division 1 conferences in the U.S., no doubt. So I wanted to pitch against the best to prove myself, honestly.”
Here’s hoping he gets that chance this fall.