Trying to mend a tough break; Baseball: After making the climb from Glen Burnie High to the major leagues, Tony Saunders suffered a devastating arm injury. Now the Devil Rays pitcher is in rehabilitation, hoping to save his career.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

No heavy-duty bonus to sign. Not even enough money to buy a secondhand car or promises of a partially paid college education. Merely an opportunity. That's what Tony Saunders wanted if only a long-shot chance to prove his ability.

He believed in himself if others didn't. To be placed in the ever-demanding arena of baseball was all he asked. And then to see what would happen -- the painful lot that befell him -- after he earned his way to the major leagues as a gifted left-handed pitcher of unlimited promise, became a shock of sudden despair.

Saunders will never forget the scenario: a moment when part of his world fell in as he collapsed with a pain he never realized could be so traumatic, almost paralyzing. Teammates, manager, coaches and trainers came running to his side.

Before their eyes, they had witnessed Saunders' arm "exploding." It was May 26, Tropicana Field, third inning and a 3-3 tie between his Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Texas Rangers.

He had just thrown a 3-1 changeup to Juan Gonzalez. Now he was coming back with a straight fastball.

"There was no warning," he said. "When I released the pitch, I knew in an instant what happened. It flashed through my mind. I knew my arm was broken. The injury was nothing like I could imagine. I was suffering. My arm just dangled. As I went into my delivery, I was as relaxed as I wanted to be. The overwhelming pain that followed dropped me to the ground. I wouldn't wish that kind of injury on anybody."

Tony Saunders is 25, married to his teen-age sweetheart from Glen Burnie High School, the former Joyce Dickerson, and they are parents of a 2-year-old girl, Samantha. His future, until that ballpark crisis, was bright and filled with lofty dreams of what might come later.

Now, he's in rehabilitation at Kernan Hospital. Thrice weekly, Saunders is under the care and supervision of physical therapist director William Neill and his assistant, John Mahoney, for massage, treatment and mild exercise.

Neill, who has treated Hall of Fame athletes in all sports, as well as former President Jimmy Carter, offers a confident prophecy. "I think there is every reason to believe he will pitch again." But, of course, there's much more work to do between patient and therapist.

His shoulder range is slowly coming back to an almost full and easy rotation. Two other areas also are being dealt with in a complex program of hoped-for recovery. There's a mid-shaft fracture of the humerus (the bone between the shoulder and the elbow) and a severe contusion of the radial nerve, which controls muscles in the forearm that extend to the wrist and hand. Return of nerve function is vital, and to achieve the objective is a methodical process that demands time and delicate care.

"He's been working with Dr. Moorman, [Claude T. Moorman, director of sports medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center] and they're real, real happy with the way the fracture has healed," said Devil Rays trainer Jamie Reed, formerly the Orioles' assistant trainer. "It'll probably be another six to eight weeks before he has full function of all the muscles in his forearm and hand. At that point, you get real aggressive with the rehab.

"This was a pretty dramatic injury. You have to be fair to Tony and take it one step at a time. You set short-term goals, not long-term. To say he'll be throwing off a mound by December or January would be premature. Are we optimistic? Certainly."

Doctors aren't entirely sure what caused the arm to "explode." It's not something they see with frequency, and they don't read of similar case histories in medical journals. There's even a belief, without confirmation, that Saunders became so strong in his upper torso, including back, neck, shoulders and biceps, that the arm wasn't able to tolerate the power his strength created.

The weakest point in the arm structure, according to Neill and Mahoney, is between the shoulder and elbow. That's what came apart. Saunders mentions there have been nine similarly documented accidents to pitchers in the past 20 years and, strangely enough, all were left-handers. Why? Dr. James Andrews, the prominent orthopedic surgeon who cares for the Devil Rays, explained to Saunders that left-handed people "have more external rotation" when they are in a throwing motion.

"It's still a mystery," Saunders said. "Two other good doctors in Tampa told me they had never seen anything like this before."

After Saunders, endowed with a smile and a personality that would light up a coal mine at midnight, was hurt, the sympathies of the country, even the world, were directed to him.

"I got mail from all over," he said. "Fans wrote to tell me of their own physical problems and how they fought back. I heard from Tom Browning, who had the same injury happen to him. My manager, Larry Rothschild, was then Tom's pitching coach in Cincinnati when it happened. How do you like that for irony?

"Tom's call meant a lot. He told me what to expect, but not to become too anxious in trying to hurry up the healing."

Finding Kernan Hospital has been important. He could have remained in Tampa for treatment, but his agent, Ron Shapiro, told Andrews how important it was for Saunders to be near his home in Severn. This led to Shapiro's contacting Moorman, who, in turn, agreed Kernan would be pleased to be of assistance.

Saunders doesn't complain, nor does he doubt he's going to rejoin the Devil Rays. The struggle, though, is long and hard, and Saunders knew it would be.

"You take for granted when you're 25 that you are going to be able to throw forever. But this awakened me. One more pitch and it's all over. You don't know if that's going to happen. Now I'm never going to take anything for granted. I'll never take another day in life for granted."

Nothing has ever been handed to Saunders. He came up the hard way in baseball with perspiration, determination and consistent progress. He was ignored by all of baseball when coming out of high school in the free-agent draft of 1992. A total of 1,410 players were selected, but he wasn't included.

At the time, he was only 5 feet 10, 175 pounds. Now, he has matured into a muscular 6-2, 230. It was Ty Brown, a scout for the Florida Marlins, who heard the club's farm team in the Gulf Coast League needed a pitcher to fill out the roster.

Brown, the son of Joe L. Brown, former general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates and grandson of the comedian, actor and baseball historian of yesteryear, Joe E. Brown, believed Saunders could be of help. He gave him a signing bonus of $1,000. After taxes, it came to about $750.

Saunders was an immediate surprise to the Marlins, a bargain discovery. He moved through their minor-league system to the majors in 1997. After a year with the Marlins, including starting a World Series game, he was picked in the expansion draft by Tampa Bay.

The physical bad break that happened doesn't have him retreating into a state of feeling sorry for himself. No "Why me?"

Seeing a young athlete seriously damaged, just as hopeful promise is becoming reality, is never easy to accept. Not for Tony Saunders or those watching how he magnanimously deals with where he is now: the crossroads between current adversity and finding the path to regaining future achievement.

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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