A Rebuilt Elbow, Renewed Career for Aase of Orioles
If the surgery that saved Don Aase’s career involved anything other than a pitcher’s elbow, it would sound so simple.
A surgeon takes a piece of tissue from another part of the body, usually the foot or forearm, and attaches it to two bones that meet at the elbow. In other words, he creates a new elbow.
When it was performed on pitcher Tommy John 12 years ago, doctors had no idea if it would work, although they knew the theory was sound.
“It’s the sort of thing you do when you reconstruct a knee,” said Dr. Lewis Yocum, the Los Angeles-based physician who performed the operation on Aase.
“The concept is that you have to do something to hold the two bones together. Preferably, you sew the tendon that’s already there back together, but if there’s no healthy tissue remaining, you reconstruct by creating a tendon from another piece of tissue.”
Yet, while John did return to pitching, he was vastly different, getting by on finesse and control instead of power and intimidation. Still, he was pitching again, and three years later he not only was back on a big league mound, but on his way to winning 80 games over four seasons.
Eight years passed between the time John had his elbow rebuilt and Aase felt his elbow “was on fire.” In that time, Yocum and his surgical team performed about 10 similar procedures.
“We knew more, but it still wasn’t routine,” he said. “It’s not routine today. You’ve got to get the points of attachment just right. You have to get the angle right.”
Aase’s recovery is different because no pitcher who’d thrown 92 m.p.h. before this kind of operation ever had returned to throw 92 m.p.h. Aase credits Yocum.
“No,” Yocum said. “Our work is done in a couple of hours. The other 18 months are up to him.”
Three and a half years removed from that operating table, Aase has made a complete and remarkable recovery.
Still only 31, he has been baseball’s most dominant relief pitcher in 1986 and everything the Baltimore Orioles hoped for when they signed him to a four-year, $2.4-million free-agent deal after the 1984 season.
Not only has he saved 17 of their 34 victories, but at 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, with an intimidating handlebar mustache, he has performed with so much power and poise that it’s hard to believe he’s three years removed from living with his right arm in a sling.
A baseball man who watched Aase throw in July 1983 recalled, “He could lob the ball about 10 feet.”
At his current pace, Aase would save 48 games, three more than the major-league record established by Kansas City’s Dan Quisenberry in 1983 and matched by St. Louis’ Bruce Sutter in 1984.
Aase is no Sutter, though. Aase gets his saves not with finesse, but with hard .44-magnum sliders and 92-m.p.h. fastballs.
“You always want to have a guy like Goose Gossage,” Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said, “and it looks like we might have one. It’s to the point where I look out in the bullpen, and he’s almost waving at me, saying, ‘Hey, Earl, we can win this game.’ ”
Orioles reliever Tippy Martinez, who has been relegated to the role of No. 2 short reliever since Aase’s arrival, said, “I think this is like a fantasy for Earl. I think he’s always dreamed of having that big, dominating, right-handed stopper.”
Aase is among the most private of all the Orioles, as hard to reach as Alan Wiggins, as quiet as Jim Dwyer.
Aase said part of his personality is a residual from spending so many hours working out alone while preparing to pitch again. Another part of it is “natural. I don’t have much to say.”
Glimpses of his personality come a bit at a time, like last weekend in an 18-9 victory at Yankee Stadium when he was the last Orioles’ pitcher still in the bullpen and would duck beneath the bench each time the Yankees would get another hit.
Or when he talked about California Manager Jim Fregosi’s decision to move him to the bullpen in 1980.
“I think it had something to do with me lasting eight innings (combined) in my last four starts,” he said. “Then I went to the bullpen and pitched 17 innings my first week. Fregosi said, ‘Now, that’s what you’ve been doing to us. Take some of your own medicine for a while.’ ”
Yet as the public spotlight has focused on this private person, Aase has not ducked it, and this week, he sat for almost an hour to talk about the highs and lows of 15 years in professional baseball, from being a 17-year-old kid who went 0-10 for Williamsport in 1972 to one who may mean the difference between the Orioles finishing first or third in 1986.
Raised in a middle-class suburb near Anaheim, Calif., his earliest recollection of throwing was that he was good at it. When he was a kid, he and friends would play in some of the miles of orange groves southeast of Los Angeles, and he remembers being able to throw hard even then.
At 11, he played on his first organized team and, naturally, was a pitcher, tall and skinny, with a compact motion and sizzling fastball.
By his junior year of high school, when the football coach had tried to make him a 140-pound pulling guard, he was finished with all other sports.
“I liked football,” he says, “but I had the size of a wide receiver and the speed of a guard. Really, about then, playing baseball was my only interest.”
So when the Boston Red Sox came calling in 1972, he passed up a full scholarship to UCLA to begin the first of six seasons in the minor leagues.
What he remembers about those early days is that, first, minor-league players could hit pitchers who threw a steady diet of fastballs. Second, there wasn’t much to do in Williamsport or Elmira.
“The first couple of weeks, all I did was sit in a hotel and watch it rain,” he said. “The entire area was flooded, and I remember looking out the window and watching things like cars float past. In those days, I was a good pitcher for five innings, but because I had no breaking ball, they’d be waiting on my fastball the second or third time around. It seemed they always caught up to me about the same time every game.”
His development speeded up the next two winters, when he developed a curveball, then a slider. He finally made it to the Red Sox in late 1977, appearing in 13 games and going 6-2 with four complete games and two shutouts. At the time, he thought he’d found a home. He hadn’t. That winter, the Red Sox traded him to the California Angels for second baseman Jerry Remy.
He would remain with the Angels for seven years, and they would be some of the best and worst years of his life.
The best moment came after the 1979 season when he was working at a bank and fell in love with another employee, Judy Becker.
They were married Jan. 10, 1981, and had a son, Kyle, a year later. Five years after the wedding, the honeymoon apparently hasn’t ended. If he seems cool or detached talking fastballs or blown save chances, it’s talking about Judy that shifts him into another gear.
“She’s good for me,” he said. “She’s much more outgoing than me, so I think we complement each other. She brings things out in me, and I keep her calmed down. I’m very lucky to have met her, very lucky.”
Meanwhile, things were not so great on the field. As a starting pitcher, he was not the second coming of Bob Gibson--30-32 with a 4.25 ERA in four seasons.
Then on Aug. 3, 1980, Fregosi used him in relief, and Aase had made his last start. He considered the move “a demotion,” but he had found his niche, appearing in 39 games in 1981 and saving 11.
After years of experimenting with how he should pitch hitters the second and third time he faced them in a game, he could come in and do what he does best: Throw hard.
Then, in 1982, he had some “discomfort” in his elbow, and this is where the story gets complex. The Angels were in a pennant race, and there was pressure to pitch.
Whether that pressure was self-induced by someone who didn’t want to let his teammates down or whether it came from California Manager Gene Mauch is a question that may never be answered.
For his part, Aase admitted he shouldn’t have ignored the pain as long as he did, although he did go on the disabled list twice that summer, in June and in July.
Twice, he attempted to return, and while the pain was less severe, “I couldn’t pop a fastball.”
Doctors told him he had a slight muscle tear, one that would heal with rest. Mauch told reporters he knew Aase was hurting, but that sometimes you have to pitch “with tears in your eyes.”
Aase did that, and on July 17, while throwing a pitch to Cleveland’s Andre Thornton, his “right arm felt like it was on fire from the elbow down.”
Again, doctors told him he had a slight muscle tear. Aase took six more weeks off and tried to return. Finally, on a September evening at Comiskey Park, he gave up.
“I was out there trying to get loose, and it was killing me,” he said. “Andy Hassler and Steve Renko were watching, and one of them said, ‘You’re hurting pretty bad, aren’t you?’ I just said, ‘That’s it,’ and went home. The thing is, I knew I needed surgery. If I’d kept throwing, I would have torn my arm in half.”
When the surgery ended, he began what would amount to two years of rehabilitation, first with small weight-lifting exercises, later with some light throwing. He didn’t pitch at all in 1983, and in 1984, pitched in four games at Redwood before returning to the Angels for 23 more.
He said he’s happy he could be with Judy and Kyle for their first year together, but at the same time, he felt alone.
“You lose your identity because you’re not with the team,” he said. “Spring training is an awful time because your friends and teammates are somewhere else working. I’d feel good two or three times, then feel like I’d suffered a major injury again. They told me there’d be peaks and valleys, and there were. Eventually, they start to level out, but it’s a long haul.”
When he did return in 1984, he was awesome, appearing in 23 games, saving eight and allowing 30 hits in 39 innings.
His contract was up after the season, and he said it’s only a coincidence that he departed California as Mauch was returning.
“Gene and I have settled our differences,” he said. “I left because I got a better offer from the Orioles.”
Maybe. Asked about Aase, Mauch measured his words and wouldn’t elaborate.
“Baltimore took a gamble,” he said. “They signed him, then used him as a starter for a whole year--he’d pitch once and get three days off. I’m happy for him.”
Now, 14 years after he showed up at Williamsport to begin his pro career, he should mark the end of his comeback by pitching in his first All-Star Game next month, and a lot more people will know about Don Aase’s miraculous recovery.
Still, because the past has been so unpredictable, he doesn’t look too far ahead. He and Judy own a home near Anaheim, and another in Baltimore. They have a second child, a daughter, Amber, and both do considerable charity work.
In an Orioles clubhouse that hasn’t always accepted outsiders readily, Aase was accepted almost automatically.
“I’ll tell you about him,” Rick Dempsey said. “He’s the type you respect in a hurry. He goes about his business very quietly. If he gives up a big hit, he doesn’t alibi. If he does the job, he doesn’t go looking for attention. I don’t know how to describe him, but I know people admire him.”
Aase said he appreciates that.
“My confidence is higher than it has ever been,” he said.