Philadelphia Daily News - February 14, 1980
Ruthven Rids Himself of Junk
By Bill Conlin
Dr. Frank Jobe, the Los Angeles-besed patron saint of lame arms, explained Dick Ruthven's elbow problem in layman's language.
"There's a lot of junk in there," Dr. Jobe told Ruthven at the end of a 1979 season Dick and his right arm would just as soon forget.
"Extra-osseous debris," Phillies trainer Don Seger said. yesterday, watching the pressure reading on a sleeve which was freeze-drying the righthander's elbow.
Dr. Jobe removed 14 pieces of extra-osseous debris in an operation which sounded like more of a job for San ford and' Son. While he was in there, the Dodgers orthopedist removed scar tissue from Ruthven's 1974 elbow operation which happened to be rubbing against the ulnar nerve.
OTHER THAN THAT, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the pitcher's arm. How'd Ruthven comb his hair last season, anyway, let alone perform like the league's best pitcher until the shrapnel started nipping at nerves and such?
Although you could get away with calling Ruthven's general condition "bone chips," the condition was a little more esoteric than that. Dick's bones were fine. The extra-osseous debris was actually caused by blood which, instead of being absorbed into his system, had calcified into hard flakes of assorted sizes and shapes.
So much for the anatomy lesson. All you want to know is, can Ruthven pitch? Will a talented athlete who has had two arm operations, back and rib cage miseries and a surgically-repaired broken ankle finally make it from March to October without becoming a medical bulletin? And what about a recent Philadelphia Magazine observation that the surgery left him with a lame arm?
"I started throwing last week," Ruthven said after his final Vet workout before he heads for Clearwater. "Thirty feet away for 15 minutes. I haven't been on the mound yet, but I'm throwing about 60 feet. Bob Boone's about 15 feet behind the plate and I'm on flat ground. I'm not lame. It feels good. I've even messed around with some breaking balls. That's when it bothered me the most last year and I don't feel it now."
DR. JOBE recommended surgery as a hedge against a day when one of those flakes of calcified blood floated into the elbow joint "He told me the discomfort I felt last season would go away and that I should expect a 100 percent recovery. I don't think I would have had it if he hadn't told me that. I think I could have pitched with it. It wasn't really the reason that I couldn't pitch at the end of the season."
He didn't pitch most of September because he blew a muscle in his back. "I don't know if it was from favoring the elbow, but it was the reason I couldn't pitch," Dick said. "That healed on its own in about three months and doesn't bother me at all. I don't know what the hell it was, but if I took a deep breath or coughed it really hurt."
Don't let Ruthven kid you. It also hurt when he pitched. "It was always generally tight; it never would get loose," Dick said. "On my breaking ball, a couple of times it stuck me so bad I looked down to see if I was bleeding. Then psychologically, when you go to snap a breaking ball off you tend to be a little sloppy with it. Subconsciously, I didn't win that particular battle and maybe my mind was telling me I shouldn't win that battle. That's when I started inventing stuff."
Ruthven fiddled while his elbow burned.
He became a master of the half-fast ball, the almost curve and the changeup off a changeup. If Ruthven's long, frustrating season had a positive aspect, it was the well of resources he discovered within himself.
"I THINK I learned quite a bit," he said, "trying to invent things to stay in the game. Boonie and I learned quite a lot about each other and I learned a lot about what I could make the ball do because I had to make it move, whereas before it would naturally move. Now, I can do a few more things with my fastball. I can turn it over a little bit. I learned a lot because I didn't have a whole lot to deal with. Trying to compete with what I had wasn't the most fun I ever had. The way it feels now compared to then I can look back on it as a positive experience, a learning experience."
Ruthven laughed wryly. "But it was a total pain in the ass," he said.
He will turn 29 next March and is long overdue for the big year a pitcher with his gifts should have, six solid months of the 13-5 form he flashed for the Phillies after they rescued him from Atlanta on June 15, 1978. Ruthven has often been a victim of his impulsiveness. And a man who knows him well winced a little when he talked about messing with breaking balls in his second week of throwing. Take it a little easy, huh, Dick?
"I don't think I'll push anything," he said. "I've gone through something similar before. This is the third surgery I've had. I feel like I'm in control. It would be kind of stupid to go out there and start firing like I might have done when I was 22 or something. If you're faced with something that could end your career you tend to be careful with it. That's why I went out to LA for a second opinion."
Scars criss-cross Dick Ruthven's elbow like the downhill trails at Lake Placid. But Dr. Jobe rebuilt Tommy John's crippled left arm with parts borrowed from his right thigh. After that bionic reconstruction, Ruthven's operation must have seemed like first aid.