Athlete / NYJSM Interview / Turk Wendell

Interview with Turk Wendell

January 25, 2009

Matthew Vasey, MD

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Dr. Vasey: As the son of Midwesterner, I grew up a Cubs fan. I was a young Little League pitcher about the time you were breaking into the Major League scene with the Cubs in 1993. I remember you very well as both a player and a personality. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about an elbow injury which I presume was a very significant piece of your professional career. Tell me a little bit about the events leading up to your elbow injury and how it ultimately came about. What did the doctors explain as the type of injury you were dealing with?
Turk Wendell: The injury came about over time. Overuse was the main factor in the occurrence of this injury. A pitcher needs a certain amount of rest between pitching stints, especially when they throw a large quantity of pitches in a game or multiple games. This is why they have a 5 man starting rotation and 6-7 relief pitchers on each MLB team. Combine that with the simple fact that throwing a baseball goes against everything your arm is built to do, without the proper rest and care injuries of this nature, and ones much worse can occur.

Dr. Vasey: What sort of things were going through your head confronted with a serious career altering injury?
Turk Wendell: There are many different things that go through ones head when you have any injury, but when it entails surgery, the thoughts get deeper and worse. The biggest fear or thought is if one will ever pitch again, and if so, will it be to the level once before achieved. It's a very scary feeling to cut open the one thing that has made you money for your life and family, and given you your livelihood. It's not that different of a feeling then if a surgeon would need to have hand or eye surgery. There are always doubts that he/she will never be the same as they were once before the surgery.

Dr. Vasey: Were there any conservative options for treating your injury, or was surgery the only option?
Turk Wendell: No, when a flexor tendon is torn from the bone, there are 3 that run down your inner forearm and connect to the inner point of your elbow; the only way to fix this is with surgery.

Dr. Vasey: What were the early stages after your operation like and on into your course of rehabilitation? How long until you able to get back out onto the field? Did you ever feel 100% back to normal after the surgery?
Turk Wendell: During the early stages after the surgery things seem ok, you are first in a mechanical "cast" that limits your mobility, and each week it gets set to a greater range of motion. This increases each week as the injury starts to heal. The scary thing was once it comes out of this "mechanical cast" was trying not to re-injure it. You are cautious not to bump your elbow, accidentally hitting it or letting someone else hit it. It was extremely scary during one of my aqua therapy rehab sessions to have 2 stitches come out in the water! At times like this you especially, think you will never be back to normal or be able to compete again at the MLB level as before. The overall rehab took about 4 months from surgery to getting back into an MLB game! This is one of the few surgeries that is not "career" threatening, unlike a "Tommy John' or rotator cuff surgery. When back pitching in the Big Leagues I was 100% but took precautions to make sure this wouldn't occur again.

Dr. Vasey: How is your elbow today? Looking back would you do anything differently in regard to the management of your injury?
Turk Wendell: Today my elbow is fine. Looking back I would have done everything exactly the same! I was paid to play and perform each day. It was an honor to be a Major Leaguer and put my uniform on each day, and in doing so you have a commitment to your team, your fans, your family, and yourself to be the best you can each and every day whether you get to play in that days' game or not.

Dr. Vasey: Could you tell me a little bit about what it is like and what is involved with being a pitcher in the Major Leagues?
Turk Wendell: What it's like to be a MLB player/pitcher is the greatest feeling in the world, it's like the feeling you get when you are a parent! Very few people get to say they live their dream each and every day, plus as a bonus get paid for it, and very well too! There is a great deal involved in doing this, it takes a lifetime of hard work, determination, and sacrifice along with a great deal of God given talent. All that being said for what it takes to get there, its takes just as much if not more to stay there and be the best of the best each and every day, year in and year out.

Getting to the ballparks by 11 am - noon for a 7:05 pm game each day to prepare both physically and mentally can be very demanding, especially when you put travel and family time in the mix with it all. That is why I said it takes a great deal of determination, hard work and sacrifice. But it's not that big of a deal when you look at the "big picture" of life. Putting 10-20 years at the Major League level will enable one to spend the rest of his life hanging out doing whatever they want. You can enjoy your family. You can watch kids grow up without the worry of having to go to work each and every day!

Dr. Vasey: Some of your legacy is certainly related to your personality and "superstitious-like" behavior on the field. What sort of things did you routinely do on or off the field? How and when did that become a part of you as a player?
Turk Wendell: Being "superstitious" is something that was a label put on me early in my career because of my "ROUTINE". Each and every successful MLB player has a routine in which they follow each and every day. They may alter that every once in awhile, but for the most part they have one. This is accomplished through success and failure. We has humans are very habitual. When things work we keep doing it that way, when they don't, we stop!

In high school, I stepped on the foul line when taking the field, I gave up some runs that inning. From that point on I never wanted to step on the foul line again. Bottom line, these things, ROUTINES, put us in a comfort zone. The more comfortable one feels the better he/she will perform in whatever it is they are doing. If you don't shower or brush your teeth when you wake up in the morning, the whole day you don't feel that good. It will affect your day someway, somehow, your performance will suffer. As a MLB player you have to reach the highest level you can each and every day unlike in any other sport with a 162 game schedule and another 30 in Spring Training. You ask any successful MLB player and I assure you he had a routine.

Dr. Vasey: What is one of your most memorable moments as a player?
Turk Wendell: That is easy, my most memorable moments as a MLB player happened every day walking into a MLB locker room seeing a uniform with my name on it, getting to put on that uniform and going out to compete against the best players in the world. Every day it was the greatest feeling in the world, and I was lucky enough to get that "high" everyday!

Dr. Vasey: What would you like to be remembered for as a player in Major League Baseball?
Turk Wendell: That is a tough question, but I have to say I would hope people will remember that I was a player that gave 100% each and every time he stepped foot between the lines. I never went through the motions. I wanted to win for my team every time I pitched, and that I was a team player. I was selfless when it came to the team. I never turned down the ball when asked to pitch.

Dr. Vasey: How do you feel about the state of Major League Baseball in 2009?
Turk Wendell: I feel a bit disappointed about two things:

First, steroids and all drugs need to be erased from the game. Every player should be tested for everything each and every month, If caught once, they receive a 1 year suspension form the game without pay. If they get caught a 2nd time they can go find another career. As I stated earlier, it's an honor to be a MLB player and if you want to take that for granted and cheat, you have no place in the game.

Second, Free Agency has to change. Not so much for the players who have been in the USA playing, but they need to institute a World Wide Draft to include all international players. That being said, it wouldn't matter if you came from Mars or Jupiter, if you are good enough to play in the Majors then you go into the June draft just like every American born player had to do and play for the team that picks you!

So many players come from around the world to play here and are instant Free Agents. If they are really good, it becomes a bidding War for these players. The teams with the most money want these players, and the small market teams get cut right out of the chase! If these players enter the June MLB Draft, they play for the team that picked them. If they don't like the team then they sit out the whole year (like J.D. Drew did when the Phillies drafted him). The worst teams from the previous year's standings get the 1st picks in the draft. This would let the worst teams get the best players to help their franchises become better. Plus, you would eliminate these new players from only wanting to play for the big market teams that pay the best and have a lot more marketability as well. If they don't like the rules then they don't have to come here and play.

These free agents come here and take a spot from some young player who has possibly spent 6-8 years in the Minors waiting for his chance. Just when that is about to happen a free agent comes along and gets $30 million. That contract prevents the Minor League guy from ever see the light of day in the Big leagues! Most baseball players have to go through the Minor League to some extent being the best of the best, year in and year out for many years making nothing for money! When and if they do finally get to the Big Leagues they have to have 2-4 very good years to finally get a good paycheck! Free Agents from abroad come here, not having ever played one Minor League game, or MLB game and are getting huge money! It's not fair and it needs to addressed and changed!!!!

Dr. Vasey: Do you have any advice for young healthy high school, college and minor league athletes with hopes of following in your path?
Turk Wendell: It's not easy, but it can be as hard as you make it. I am living proof that if I can do it anyone can! Hone your God given talents with hard work, determination, sacrifice, and the "never quit, never say die attitude!" Make the right choices in life, stay away from alcohol, drugs, and women (for the most part).

I watched and heard of players/teammates with far more talent than I ever dreamed of having chased women to all hours of the night, drinking or doing drugs. It wasn't very long when they found themselves out of the game. This all affects your game, it has to! Eat the right foods, take care of your body and get the proper sleep that your body requires. You only have one shot at this. Make the most of it, there are millions of people sitting at home saying "I woulda, shoulda, coulda, only if ???? happened". Make it happen, luck is when preparation and opportunity meet. If you are not prepared for the opportunity when it presents itself to you, you most likely will FAIL. Your God given talent will only take you so far in this journey. The rest is in your hands. It then requires hard work, good work ethic, determination and a great deal of sacrifice! Good Luck

Dr. Vasey: Do you have any advice for young baseball players who are confronted or playing with a similar injury to yours?
Turk Wendell: This is somewhat simple, do what the doctors tell you. Follow the protocol for your rehab biblically, and DO NOT rush things!

Dr. Vasey: Thank you very much for taking time talk with me about your experience. I know there are many people who have battled a similar issue or will be confronted with such. Your insight and advice is sincerely appreciated both by me and our readers. My best wishes on your continued success. on Social Media