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Butch Henry Says Education Could Prevent Baseball Injuries

When Dr. Frank Jobe first performed elbow ligament replacement surgery on Tommy John 40 years ago, nobody knew if the Dodgers pitcher would ever throw again in the big leagues. John fully recovered, was able to pitch for another 15 years in the majors, and his elbow procedure was renamed Tommy John surgery.

Butch Henry graduated from Eastwood High School and signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1987 to pursue his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues. Five years later, his wish became a reality as a rookie with the Houston Astros. Over the next seven seasons, Henry pitched for five MLB teams, but retired from professional baseball at the age of 32. The El Pasoan underwent Tommy John surgery in 1995 (which was also performed by Dr. Jobe), but he also had surgeries on both of his knees. Henry’s last major injury was to his throwing shoulder, which forced his early retirement from the game.

(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Nearly fifteen years later, professional baseball is dealing with a new epidemic: the rising number of pitching related injuries. This week, Miami Marlins 21-year old phenom Jose Fernandez was diagnosed with a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament and will undergo Tommy John surgery. Sadly, this procedure has become as common in the sport as a routine trip to the disabled list. In fact, over 30 major and minor league pitchers have gone under the knife for TJ surgery since February, a startling number of baseball casualties. Many of these players face a vigorous rehab of at least 12 months before returning to their Major League Baseball club.

Henry said the rise in pitching injuries are a result of three things:
1. Kids are playing baseball year-round from the age of seven through high school
2. Kids are throwing harder than they did 10 to 15 years ago. In general a pitcher throwing 90-91 miles per hour has been replaced by 95+ mph.
3. Players are bigger and stronger than ever before. That is putting more force on arm and elbow ligaments when they throw.

Baseball Hall of Famer and strikeout king Nolan Ryan has long advocated removing pitch counts in the Minor Leagues. Ryan’s belief is that the more pitchers throw, the stronger their arms will get. Henry sees one major problem with that theory. “With Nolan’s thoery, your arm gets stronger but the connective tissue doesn’t. Once you start breaking your muscles down, that is when injuries occur.”

After his playing career was over, Henry became a Minor League pitching coach with the Cincinnati Reds organization before taking over as manager for the Independent El Paso Diablos in 2006. He admits that it will be difficult to prevent future arm injuries from happening to pitchers. “I don’t know that you will be able to prevent (injuries), other than not throwing.”

One thing that the ex-big leaguer would like to see implemented is an education program designed for all youth baseball coaches. “I would like to see a teaching program that all Little League coaches have to go through where they get certified so kids don’t get hurt,” Henry told me.

“I would not have my kids throw anything other than a fastball or change-up until they are 15 years old.”

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