Constable: Ballplayer makes injury-prevention pitch
There are no memories of life before baseball.
"Since I was 2 years old, my dad was tossing me baseballs," begins Rich Mascheri, telling his story from a dugout on a baseball field at Wauconda High School, where he starred before his graduation in 2007. "Baseball was my sport. I practiced year-round. I never had an injury. I never missed a game. I never missed a practice."
Tens of thousand of times during his career, Mascheri picked up a baseball and let his talented left arm and shoulder repeat the throwing motion over and over again without a hitch. As a promising pitcher in the minor leagues for the New York Yankees, his luck changed.
Now 25, Mascheri is rehabbing after shoulder surgery, preparing for a comeback and taking part in a "Shoulders For Life" medical campaign to warn younger players about injuries caused by overuse, trying to play through pain, bad habits and focusing exclusively on one sport.
"We see kids as young as 10 or 12 with shoulder pain from throwing too much," says Dr. Brian Forsythe, an orthopedic surgeon with Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, who is part of shouldersforlife.org. "We're seeing it more and more."
Forsythe says youth sports are suffering from an epidemic of injuries caused by "specialization" and kids simply doing too much. A former Division 1 soccer player, Forsythe says he had several "overuse injuries" that might have been prevented with more rest or even playing a different sport for a bit to exercise different muscles.
"There are a ton of injuries with kids playing the same sport year-round," says Michael Gilboe, head athletic trainer at Lake Forest College and public relations director for the Illinois Athletic Trainers Association. With all the attention given concussions, sports programs are paying more attention to the overall health of young athletes, says Gilboe, noting that 32 percent of Illinois high schools have full-time certified trainers, and another 39 percent have part-time coverage.
"We're in the dugouts and on the sidelines," Gilboe says.
It's not only baseball. Doctors are seeing an increase in shoulder injuries in boys and girls who are swimmers or play softball, volleyball or tennis.
"There's pressure from coaches, parents and kids themselves," says Forsythe, who notes that boys and girls join competitive club teams and play one sport exclusively all year. "Part of the reason they are good is because they are pushing themselves. Kids are trying to get better and they see specialization as the way to do that."
Mascheri played for a couple of club travel teams in addition to the Wauconda High School baseball team, even competing in tournaments in Georgia and Florida during the winter.
"I would make sure to take some time off, at least a month," remembers Mascheri. Doctors with Shoulders For Life recommend taking three months away from a sport.
While coaches adhere to pitch counts, Mascheri says there were ways for him and other pitchers to throw more than Shoulders For Life would recommend. He remembers throwing 135 pitches during one game in high school.
"A sore arm? Yes. But never an injury," Mascheri says.
A good-hitting outfielder and pitcher as a teenager, Mascheri won a batting title as a player at the College of Lake County before going on to play for Western Illinois University. He also played in the summers for elite college leagues in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
"I really blossomed as a pitcher my senior year," says Mascheri. After college, he signed a professional contract with the Normal CornBelters of the independent Frontier League, which also includes the Schaumburg Boomers, and he got even better.
"My 84- to 86-mile-per-hour fastball became an 86- to 88-mile-per-hour fastball, and then my 86-88 became an 88-90 and then a 90-92 or 93," he says.
That's when the New York Yankees signed him to a minor league contract. After pitching four hitless innings and striking out six batters as a reliever in the Gulf Coast League for rookies, Mascheri was promoted to the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League for advanced A-ball players.
He still remembers giving up his first hit to a promising young Chicago Cubs prospect named Javier Baez. Mascheri also got the chance to play with Major League legends who were sent to the minors during their rehab from injuries.
"I look out and Derek Jeter is my shortstop, Alex Rodriguez in my third baseman, and Mark Teixeira is my first baseman," remembers Mascheri, who told himself, "I just need to calm down and enjoy this."
In 2013, Mascheri boasted a 3-1 record with a save, an impressive 34 strikeouts in 23.1 innings, an ERA of 1.16 and a WHIP of 0.729. Then came his injury. He finished an inning with a strikeout and his pitching coach wanted him to pitch another inning.
"The coach asked, 'How do you feel?'" Mascheri remembers. For the first time in his life, he replied, "My shoulder's killing me. I can't."
The next morning, he woke up with something more than soreness.
"I couldn't even lift my arm above my shoulder. I couldn't play catch. My shoulder was tight, very aggravated with some sharp pains," Mascheri remembers.
In August 2013, an MRI revealed a small tear in his posterior labrum. When rest and therapy didn't improve the situation, the pitcher had surgery on Oct. 1, 2014, to repair his shoulder.
"Dr. Forsythe has been absolutely fantastic. I'm way ahead of schedule," says Mascheri, noting that he's even begun throwing a bit off a pitcher's mound. He's rehabbing six to eight hours a day, and, as soon as he is healthy and pain-free, expects to sign a contract with a team in the Frontier League and renew his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues one day.
Unsure of the exact cause of his injury, Mascheri says he supports the efforts of Shoulders For Life, and wants young players to get the rest their bodies need. But he admits that athletes think more about the chance of living a dream than of preventing injuries that might last longer than their playing careers.
"If I get some chronic pain in the future, it will remind me of the good times I had," Mascheri says. "Maybe I'll feel differently when I'm 40."