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Kellen Sweeney never heard the pop
Jim Ecker    
Published: Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Kellen Sweeney never heard the pop. That’s why the dreaded words “Tommy John Surgery” did not enter his mind.

Sweeney, a senior at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School in Iowa, missed several weeks late in the 2009 high school season with a hamstring injury, so he was thinking about his leg – not his arm – when he pitched against Marshalltown in a Class 4A substate game on July 17. He didn’t hear the pop, but he knew something was wrong after throwing a pitch and feeling the pain.

“Usually they say you hear a pop or something, and I didn’t really hear anything,” he said. “There was one pitch, and I felt a sharp pain in my forearm, right by my elbow. I threw one more pitch and I happened to get the guy out, and that was the end of the inning. I just couldn’t really throw after that and I came out.

“I just thought it was like tendonitis or something, because maybe I was compensating because I has just come off my hamstring injury," he said. "I was hoping it wasn’t this, but it happened to be.”

There wasn’t an audible pop, but it was definitely Tommy John. Sweeney tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right arm and needed surgery. It’s called Tommy John Surgery because Tommy John, a former major league pitcher, was the first to undergo this particular surgery after being injured in 1974. It was a revolutionary procedure 35 years ago, but it saved John’s career and has become a common operation for injured players ever since.

You can add Sweeney’s name to the list. He’s a shortstop, not really a pitcher, but like most good athletes on a high school team, he took his turn on the mound. Those days are probably over. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. ‘If they want to turn me into a pitcher, I guess I can try it again, but I really don’t think I’ll be pitching anytime soon.”

Sweeney had the Tommy John Surgery on Aug. 26 in Birmingham, Ala. It was performed by Dr. James Andrews, who is famous for these operations. “He was a cool dude,” said Sweeney. “He knows his stuff. He’s a good guy to talk to and everything. He’s not one of those doctors who’s straightforward. He tries to make jokes to you and stuff.”

The surgery took less than two hours, although Sweeney doesn’t know exactly how much time elapsed. “I was knocked out the whole time. It went well," he said. "Everybody down there knew their stuff. It was good to have the best people working on it.”

Dr. Andrews took an “extra” tendon from Sweeney’s right wrist and used it to repair the ruptured ligament. Not everybody has an “extra” tendon in their wrist, but Sweeney did. He even had a suggestion for the medical team.

“I said, ‘Can you take it from my left wrist, so it doesn’t affect my hitting?’” he related. “And they said it won’t make your wrist weaker or anything.”

Sweeney missed the first four days of the new school year due to the surgery, but he returned to Jefferson High School on Aug. 31 with a temporary cast on his right arm, running from just under his right shoulder to his hand. He endured some pain in the days following the surgery and had trouble sleeping, because he was supposed to keep his arm elevated and it was hard to get comfortable, but he got through it and is looking forward to the day when he’s healthy again.

The recovery rate for Tommy John Surgery is encouraging. A “full recovery” is estimated for 85 to 92 percent of all patients, according to published reports, so there’s an excellent chance Sweeney will play ball again and pick up where he left off. He anticipates playing for Jefferson High School again in 2010, and if he’s not ready to play shortstop he said he’ll move to second base, first base or serve as the designated hitter. But make no mistake, he plans to play next spring.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said.

Even though Sweeney got hurt about a month before the Aflac All-American High School Classic, he was determined to make the trip and soak up the atmosphere in San Diego. As it turned out, he did better than that. Sweeney took batting practice with all the other players and looked extremely good, which convinced the coaching staff to give him a shot in the game. He took two at-bats in the Classic as the DH for the West team in a game that ended in a 4-4 tie.

"The timing was awful," said Perfect Game's Jerry Ford. "Luckily, Kellen is a well-known commodity in the scouting community. Most scouting departments have covered him thoroughly and had him in pretty good. It's possible he could still be an early-round pick next year, but it might be in his best interest to attend college. He could easily end up a first-round pick out of college. In fact, I would kind of expect that to happen."

Ford went on to say, "While he couldn't throw at the Aflac Classic, he did show that he can swing the bat with just about anyone in the country. His middle infield skills and actions really stand out in a big way when he's healthy. So you have a middle infielder with serious tools across the board and outstanding hitting ability, even power. There aren't many guys out there like that."

Sweeney’s trip to the Aflac game and his determined approach in batting practice may have paid an unexpected dividend. It may have earned him a scholarship to play baseball at the University of San Diego, which hosted the BP session that day.

Jay Johnson, an assistant coach at the University of San Diego, visited Sweeney at his home in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Aug. 31, just five days after the operation. There’s mutual interest, and Sweeney said San Diego is high on his list of possible college destinations. “Definitely,” he said. “It looks like a really, really good program.”

The University of San Diego already has four Aflac All-Americans committed for the Class of 2010. Sweeney would make five, if that’s where he ends up. Kris Bryant, Dylan Covey, Tony Wolters and Marcus LIttlewood, all ranked in the Top 25 for the Class of 2010 by Perfect Game USA, have already pledged to San Diego. Sweeney, who is ranked 27th, would give the school five of the top-27 prospects in the country. Wolters and Sweeney, both middle infielders, have become friends through their connections at Perfect Game events, and Sweeney is intrigued by the possibility of forming a double-play combination with his buddy in college.

Sweeney plans to visit the University of Arizona on Sept. 12 and the University of Oregon on Sept. 19 before making a final decision. He also could take an official visit to the University of San Diego, if he wants, but he was just there and was impressed. Is he leaning toward San Diego? “Yeah, kind of,” he said.

He’s flattered, and encouraged, that San Diego is interested. “It makes me feel good, to know that even though I had the surgery, some people still want me to go to their school, because they know I’ll be able to come back and hopefully be the player I can be,” he said.

Sweeney hopes to start swinging a bat (lightly) in three or four months, which would be in December or January. He hopes to start throwing a ball again (gently) in four or five months, which would be January or February. “Yeah, that’s probably how it will go,” he said. “It depends on how rehab goes and everything.”

The Iowa high school baseball season does not start until May, so there’s time to get healthy and get ready for that. His rehab work will be supervised by Ted Kepros, a physical therapist who works for Physiotherapy Associates in Cedar Rapids. Dr. Andrews doesn’t let everybody work with his patients, but Kepros works for a group that has the doctor’s approval.

Sweeney feels like he’s in good hands. His spirits are good and he’s ready to work, but admits he felt a little sorry for himself at first. “Yeah, it’s like ‘Why me?, but everything happens for a reason," he said. "You’ve got to tough it out and do the best you can to come back even stronger.”