A very lucky break
Werth, 31, made his ascension in baseball later than most players, exploding with Phillies in 2008, steadily climbing the ranks of baseball’s elite until he finished eighth in the National League MVP voting last season. He had been headed for stardom since youth, when his stepfather, former major leaguer Dennis Werth, installed a batting cage in the backyard when he turned 8. He arrived in 2010, 13 years after the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the first round, four years after he wondered if would ever play baseball again.
In spring 2005, Werth had seized an everyday, major league starting position with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his third organization. He had finished 2004 on a tear, and then A.J. Burnett threw a fastball that drilled Werth’s wrist in his first game of spring training.
Werth missed the 44 games, and when he returned his wrist had not healed and he hit .234. He saw seven or eight doctors and none helped. One performed surgery that made the pain more intolerable. By August 2006, it became clear he might miss the entire season. Werth returned home to Springfield, Ill. He had no answers, he couldn’t play and he didn’t know else to do. “I was in purgatory,” he said.
One morning, Werth walked outside to the mailbox and spotted a man he knew, Joseph Whalen, walking his dog. They chatted, Werth explained why he was in Springfield. Whalen happened to be an orthopedic surgery resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and he happened to be working under Richard Berger, who happened to be pioneering a new procedure to fix a wrist injury that had not previously been diagnosed. Desperate, Werth contacted Berger and went to the Mayo Clinic.
“It seemed like the world had stopped for a while,” Werth said. “It was at the point like, ‘What are we going to do now?’ When I was waiting to go see Dr. Berger, I was in not a very good place.”
Berger had discovered that the ligament Werth had damaged did not tear or sprain like a typical ligament. Instead, it split and unraveled, like strands of twine. Berger dubbed the injury a UT ligament split tear.
Berger had performed the arthroscopic procedure that heals it, but he had not published his findings or held any conferences about them. The medical world effectively knew nothing about it.
“If I didn’t go to my mailbox right at the time,” Werth said, “I don’t know if I ever would have found that guy.”
Werth had not begun pondering what else to do for a living, but life without baseball had entered his mind. After he went to the Mayo Clinic, Berger diagnosed his problem within minutes. He spent two months in a cast. The Dodgers did not offer him a contract. He chose the Phillies. After four seasons, he signed the 13th richest contract in baseball history.
“I’d put this entirely up to chance,” Berger said. “If he hadn’t been nudged to come to the Mayo Clinic, who knows? He would probably still be in the same situation, probably out of baseball.”
Berger and Werth have remained friends; they talk about getting together at a game one of these days. When Werth signed his contract, Berger sent him an e-mail. Werth quickly replied. “He wrote about how grateful he was,” Berger said. “He acknowledged how lucky he was.”
Werth is also grateful for his time in Philadelphia, for the city for embracing him, for Manager Charlie Manuel, for the teammates he won a World Series and four division titles with. But now that he’s moved on, Werth views his years with the Phillies not as something to recollect, but as the vehicle that brought him to the Nationals.
Werth does not live in the past. And seven years is a long time to look ahead. His life with the Nationals starts now. Who’s to say he should concern himself with anything else?
“You can’t take away what happened [in Philadelphia], for sure,” Werth said. “I also feel like that’s what got me here to Washington. As thankful as I am for them, I feel like that part of my life is over. This part of my life is about ready to begin.”