Bob Ojeda: Pitching Through The Pain
Over the course of his 14 years in baseball, Bob Ojeda threw more than 1,000 strikeouts and countless pitches across the plate.
The lefty, who spent most of his career with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, retired in 1994 after winning a World Series in 1986 and leading the American League in shutouts in 1984.
During that entire time, his left pitching arm hurt.
"For more than three decades, whether in Little League or the minor leagues or Fenway Park in Boston, there was pain," he wrote in a recent New York Times article. "Sharp or dull, in the elbow or at the shoulder. Throwing fastballs as a kid or junk as a lefty trying to stay in the big leagues, it all led to pain. It would be dulled by aspirin or beer or more powerful cocktails of medicine and booze. But it would never leave."
The pain Ojeda experienced is typical for a pitcher in the major leagues, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
"Pitching is an all-encompassing motion," he says. "The act itself is sort of violent and completely unnatural. I think most pitchers certainly feel a level of pain."
Ojeda says the amount of pain he experienced depended on what type of pitch he was throwing. A change-up — which required little energy — wasn't so bad. But sliders and curve balls would wreak havoc on his elbows, and fastballs really hurt his entire arm.
"Fastballs required the most energy," he says. "That was the one that if I misfired at all ... that put the maximum 'wow' factor in the ow."
The 1986 World Series
In 1986, Ojeda pitched a complete game against the Astros in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. The Mets won, 5-1, but Ojeda left the field with an injured arm. He was scheduled to pitch again during Game 6, so the team doctor injected him with a vial of cortisone.
"Once I did it, it didn't feel much better," he says. "But then when I started to throw in the bullpen in Houston to get loose, it literally felt like sandbags were added in my elbow — like an added product in there, and it took a while to get it out of there. I really couldn't make the ball do what I needed it to do."
Eventually, the pain wore off and Ojeda was able to pitch normally against the Astros and then the Red Sox in the World Series. But cortisone wasn't a long-term solution — it was just a temporary way to mask the pain. Long-term solutions would have involved rest — something Ojeda wasn't willing to do when the World Series was on the line.
"At that point, it was my dream — it was my father's dream too — and I would have paid that price any day of the week," he says. "You could not have kept me out of there. I would have done anything and accepted the consequences. I didn't do them and think, years later, wondering why I did that. I did them fully conscious of what I was doing and what I was risking, but it was worth the risk — I got a chance to go to the World Series. This was my dream since I was a little guy making up my own uniform because I loved the game so much."
After the Mets won the World Series, Ojeda was diagnosed with a chipped bone in his elbow.
"Most pitchers have debris in there; that's just part of the business and part of what you do," he says. "This particular large piece broke off and was scraping the nerve, and that was the problem. That was why the shot alleviated the pain temporarily — allowed me to continue — but when I came back in the spring of '87 ... a couple of sessions into it, I realized the year was over."
Ojeda had surgery and spent the next months on the disabled list. It was a brutal experience, he remembers.
"It is like being on the outside looking in, and there's a party going on, and they can't see you, they can't hear you, you're invisible and you feel invisible — and part of you doesn't want to be seen or heard because you're not a part of it," he says. "Good, bad or ugly — you're not a part of it. It's an awful place to be. But it actually drives you to get back out there. And the sooner I could go back out there, the better."
When Ojeda returned, he was in pain — but it was a different kind of pain.
"It wasn't that locking pain," he says. "So I knew the end of the season was there ... and that was my thing. I just had to get back out there before going through another winter with the question of, 'Is this going to work?' "
Ojeda pitched for several more years, ending his career with the New York Yankees.
"I was pretty much waiting for the tap on the shoulder, and sure enough, the tap comes," he says. "I'm not a very emotional-type person, and it's not this big ceremony. It's like, 'We gotta let you go,' and you go, 'OK,' you grab your gear and head out the door. I wasn't glad it was over, because it was the funnest thing I ever did in my life. My goodness, I played baseball for a living — that's ridiculous. But it was a relief, in that I didn't have to wait for the tap on the shoulder. It's here. There it is."
On conducting recon against other teams and pitchers
"In warm-ups, I had to throw all the pitches. And in between innings, they're noticing, 'He's not throwing this in his warm-up pitches.' So they note all of that stuff — if you've backed off on a certain pitch, and they'll adjust their approach to you accordingly. So part of the beauty of the game is that I keep having to trick them physically as well as mentally. I have to let them know that I've got all my weapons today, so you've got to pay attention to all of them."
On pitching with his entire body
"The hand and arm go up well above the shoulder, and that's where the unnaturalness of it comes. And then you have to deliver that pitch forward with whatever effort physically that you're able to use that day. When you see a pitcher's front side go a little too soon, take notice of his arm, his shoulder — the one that has the arm attached to the ball. And you'll see a tremendous amount of separation there, where the ball is completely behind the whole front part of his body, and at that point, that's probably the most dangerous part of the delivery. Before you deliver it, [the] front foot has landed, and you are now driving and torquing towards home. The key is to not let your arm drag too far behind, because that's when that shoulder opens up and injury is certainly a viable option right then."
On how the windup has changed
"I used to copy Sandy Koufax — he was my guy — and guys of that era. You'll notice that in eras of baseball, the deliveries are kind of the same. They're similar in certain aspects of it. But nowadays — today — because of the sexiness of lighting up a radar gun, you see a lot of max-effort type deliveries. Those are violent deliveries, those are disjointed deliveries — and in my opinion, one of the reasons why you have rampant arm injuries. Because the arc of pitching has been lost on the radar gun."