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Accident Does Not Stop Ojeda : Surgeon’s Skill, Wife’s Support Save Met Pitcher’s Career

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Bob Ojeda rides motorcycles. He goes backpacking and rock-climbing, where one slip can mean death.

“I put myself in those situations because I like them,” said the left-handed pitcher for the New York Mets. “That’s just the way I am.”

But Ojeda never liked power tools. His father, Bob Ojeda Sr., always had warned him to stay away from them. And on a September morning last fall in his own back yard, the worst fears of both Ojeda and his father were realized.

A common homeowner’s chore--trimming the hedges--became a nightmare when Ojeda nearly severed the tip of the middle finger of his left hand with a pair of electric clippers.

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“I don’t like machines,” Ojeda said. “I’ve never liked machines, but I was using one, and I did something I always thought I’d do if I ever touched one.”

Even when he had elbow surgery in 1987 and missed almost the entire season after doctors repositioned the ulnar nerve in his elbow, Ojeda never had experienced the pain he felt on the morning when the clippers slipped and he sliced into flesh and bone.

“When it first happened, I called to my wife, Ellen,” Ojeda said. “She came running when she heard my voice, she knew something bad had happened, she came flying out.

“I didn’t show it to her, she didn’t know what I did. I said, ‘Just go to the hospital.’ She saw all the blood all over me, it was squirting out like Freddie in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’ ”

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With his hand clutched to his chest, Ojeda climbed into the passenger seat of his car, fighting the urge to pass out.

“I don’t like cutting myself,” he said. “I don’t like needles. I don’t like to bleed, and I could feel the piece of my finger drop off. What kept me from going into shock was my wife’s driving.

“She was driving on the wrong side of the road, swerving around people. I swear, I got nervous about her driving. I said, ‘Honey, slow down, I’m going to be all right.’ ”

At the first hospital Ojeda went to, doctors wrapped the finger to stop the bleeding. But they immediately sent him to another hospital, where Richard Eaton and James Parkes, the Mets’ physicians, were awaiting them with a team of hand specialists.

“People say that it doesn’t hurt,” Ojeda said. “Well, it hurt like hell.”

It hurt even more when the doctors began to probe the injured finger.

“He had cut every nerve and every artery and every tendon,” Parkes recalled. “Everything except a little skin on the top bone.”

The joint was destroyed, and a decision had to be made quickly. The doctors decided to attempt to fuse the joint together at a 10-degree angle, the same position Ojeda holds the finger when he grips a baseball.

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“We tried to be very positive about it,” Parkes said. “We told him he would get back to pitching again.”

Ojeda said he was in no condition to understand what the doctors were telling him. “I just told them, ‘Make my finger straight.’ What Dr. Eaton did was a miracle.”

What Eaton did was 6 1/2 hours of delicate microsurgery, using sutures as thin as spider webs to sew Ojeda’s finger back together again, tendons, arteries and nerves.

“All night long,” said Ojeda, who had been given an anesthetic, “I was in the twilight zone. When I came to, I had a cast on, but the tip of my finger was sticking out, you could see that much.

“The nurse kept coming in to check it with a flashlight and touch it, to make sure the color was good. If it had started to change colors, that would have meant it had clotted.

“I even had an oxygen mask on. I was a mess. The next day, when I woke up, it didn’t really dawn on me. I couldn’t watch the guys on TV, because I knew they were talking about me.”

While the Mets were on their way to the playoffs and a date with the Dodgers, Ojeda was in a New York hospital room, knowing he would not pitch again in 1988, wondering if he would ever pitch again.

“I think pitching was the farthest thing from Dr. Eaton’s mind,” Ojeda said. “He wanted to save my finger, and he did.”

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Now it was up to Ojeda to try to salvage his career.

It began with a game of catch with his father, back in Visalia, Calif., where Ojeda was reared, where he had been most valuable player for Redwood High School, where he had been all-conference as a first baseman, outfielder and pitcher for the College of Sequoias, where he had been signed as a free agent by Red Sox scout Larry Flynn in 1978.

“The first two weeks,” Ojeda said, “I played catch with my dad every day. I didn’t know if it would stop hurting, but I said, ‘Let’s keep going, it will build up.’

“Gradually, I could feel the improvement, and I started throwing off the mound around Christmas.”

There were setbacks--like the time, unbeknown to his doctors, that Ojeda went to Shea Stadium and threw a ball to his brother-in-law, Jim Mengone.

“I was out there throwing, and my finger had barely closed up and the seams of the ball hurt like hell,” he said. “There were all these cameras and stuff, I had no place to hide, so I just started to BS and say, ‘It’s no big deal.’ Meanwhile, it really hurt.”

It hurt so much that after everyone had left, Ojeda told his wife, Ellen, that he couldn’t continue, it wasn’t worth the agony. Her response was a suggestion that he answer some more of the dozens of cards and letters he had received while in the hospital.

“It amazed me how much people cared,” Ojeda said. “People really pulled for me. They showed me how much they cared. I’m not a big media person, but to find that out, how much people cared, really touched me. Ellen knew what she was doing.

“What happened to me is something so many people do. It’s not an athlete’s injury, it’s just a regular guy’s injury. I think that’s what kind of hit people, it was like, ‘Athletes do bleed when they work around the house and get cut.’

“People always think we’re doing other things, but we’re regular people like everybody else. And believe me, we bleed when we get cut.”

By the end of January, Ojeda was beginning to feel confident that maybe he could make a comeback. “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be able to do this. I don’t know how well I’m going to do this, but I’m going to do this.’ ”

The biggest hurdle would come in spring training.

In the beginning, his teammates were apprehensive about approaching Ojeda, they didn’t quite know how to ask him about the finger. But just as Ellen began to tease him about the injury, so did the other Mets.

“Instead of asking me to slap five, they’d say ‘Give me four,’ ” Ojeda said, laughing. “Guys would come up and tell me they’d heard I had come up with a new pitch: the split-fingered fastball.”

But while Ojeda was happy to laugh along with them, he was anxious to find out how the old pitches worked.

“I was throwing my curveball, I was throwing my slider, and I asked my catchers--Gary Carter and Barry Lyons and Mackey Sasser--and they told me my pitches looked exactly the same,” Ojeda said.

“That was the real test. I needed to hear that. I needed to build some confidence. I told the beat writers, I’m in great shape, I feel great, but it’s my spring training now, too. Don’t expect me to use the finger as a crutch.

“I don’t want people’s reaction to be, ‘Oh, no, he hung a slider, it must be the finger.’ I’m still going to make lousy pitches. I’m still going to hang a slider, I’m still going to make good pitches, too. I don’t want it to be a constant crutch.”

So far, the results have been encouraging. Ojeda has taken his regular turn in spring training and has claimed his former spot in the rotation, where he won 18 games in 1986 when the Mets won the championship, and won 10 with a 2.88 earned-run average last season. There are those who say his ball actually has some different movement, making him even more difficult to hit.

Recently, Ojeda went fishing with Dodger pitcher John Tudor, his former teammate when both played for the Boston Red Sox. Tudor is recovering from elbow surgery that is expected to sideline him until at least July.

It was like a scene out of Jaws, Ojeda said, the one in which shark hunters Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw compare scars.

“You remember, they’re sitting around drinking, and one guy points to a spot and says, ‘Mako shark.’ I say to John, ‘Hedge clippers.’ ”


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