By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
He looked the same; at least part of him did. Same as always, Chad Cordero kept his hat pulled low, brim straight as a Midwest county line. His cheeks puffed from underneath the shadows -- though hey, he said, he's been biking a lot, and he's lost eight pounds since the surgery. He dressed like a teenager, the mellow SoCal look. Jeans sagged low. Rounded skateboard shoes poked out just below.
Like that, profile unchanged, Cordero walked down the lower-level steps at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, unlatched the gate to the field and headed toward the visitors' dugout. Cordero hadn't seen most of his Washington Nationals teammates in weeks, since everything about the nature of his job -- and yes, his future -- had changed for good.
"What up?" Washington team trainer Lee Kuntz said when the two crossed paths in the dugout.
"I'm good, man," Cordero said. "Real good."
What about physical therapy, Kuntz wanted to know.
"I don't start until Wednesday," Cordero said.
Kuntz motioned at Cordero's right arm, encased in a black sling, a material thick enough to resemble military-grade Kevlar.
"The doctors said I can take the sling off when I'm sitting around, laying around," Cordero told Kuntz.
"But wear it in crowds," Kuntz said, "just because everybody who sees you here is gonna come up and shake your hand, and you really can't do that. It's a 'do not disturb sign.' "
For a sense of what Cordero now faces, perhaps it's best to start with this: the closer once capable of near-untouchable pitching now has a right arm that's best not to touch. On July 8, a 40-minute surgery repaired Cordero's torn labrum, perhaps the most serious injury a pitcher can suffer. On that day, irreparably, his existence as the same old Chief ceased. A pitcher who tears his labrum loses the right to his track records. The future promises nothing. When an arm goes boom, a career resets.
Best case, Cordero will start three weeks of therapy this week, undergo eight weeks of shoulder strength training and begin throwing again in November. Though many pitchers need 12 to 18 months to recover from labrum surgeries, Cordero holds the ambition to be ready for spring training 2009. In a way, he's decided to approach recovery with the same mind-set once used for ninth innings. Cordero was always a pitcher with a 91-mph fastball and 97-mph assuredness, so when you ask him if he believes that he can regain his old form -- the kind that made him the major league saves leader in 2005 -- Cordero says, without flinching, "Definitely."
The daunting challenge has forced Cordero to pick the slight victories as bright spots. He only had one screw inserted into his shoulder, not several. When the nerve-block medication wore off several days after the surgery, he felt no pain. Unlike some pitchers who get the surgery, he never had to sleep in a recliner -- protection against rolling onto the arm.
"I don't really have to use this sling," Cordero volunteered. "But sort of like now" -- he removed the black strapping, freeing his arm -- "I'm able to move it pretty good." Keeping his elbow bent at a right angle, Cordero raised his arm. His elbow just about reached his shoulder, then stopped.
"I'll be able to go shoulder high in a couple weeks," he said.
Starting when the Expos drafted Cordero in the first round in 2003, his head and arm made a powerful combination. He blitzed into the big leagues that same year, just months removed from the College World Series. In 2005, he saved 47 games. He had a 1.82 ERA. Even last year, when his ERA rose to 3.36, few interpreted the performance as a warning sign. For the fourth straight year, he finished with more than 70 innings.
"He never gave us any signs [of a problem] until spring training, when his velocity was down," Manager Manny Acta said.
On Opening Day, Cordero felt scared for the first time. When throwing before the game, he felt a sharp pain. He took a cortisone shot. Days later, the team placed him on the disabled list. For the next month, a series of MRI and other examinations revealed a torn lat, but nothing more serious. Then, in late June, while Cordero was rehabbing for a midseason return, an arthrogram revealed the torn labrum.
Cordero regrets nothing, though he believes the injury was inevitable, given his job. Still, he passes along no blame for being overworked or misused. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire said that Cordero never complained about discomfort anyway. Still, given the injury, the team announced this week its intention to non-tender Cordero at season's end. He'll be a free agent. Pitchers with Cordero's track record can earn $6.2 million; pitchers with Cordero's injury cannot.
"No team in baseball would give him $6.2 million after labrum surgery," Bowden said. "I told him 'Chad, we want to have you back. But we have to have you back on a deal with a low base, some incentives, and if you're healthy you get paid.' "
Before Cordero can prove anything substantive, he must endure several more weeks of inactivity. These days, Cordero does little. He wakes up at 7 a.m., normally roused by his dogs. He bikes with his fiancee to the beach, one mile down the road from his new, 2,800-square foot house. He watches every Washington game on television. He tries to exhaust energy setting up his home, and his personal office space.
The decorations for that room are already set. Soon, he'll display his all-star ring. He'll find a spot for his Rolaids Relief Man Award. He'll hang up his jersey from the 2005 All-Star Game.
Then, he'll try to find a way back.
"There's no reason I can't be ready by spring training," he said. "I know deep down I will be able to do that."