Not those three little words. I present the three words no baseball mom ever wants to hear: Season. Ending. Injury.
OK, six: Little League Shoulder.
Little League Shoulder is a thing. In the medical community, it’s scientifically known as proximal humeral epiphyseolysis. Little League Shoulder is caused by repetitive force across the growth plate ball end of the upper arm bone causing it to become irritated and sometimes widen, as you can see below.
Not long after opening day, during which he pitched his usual, consistent game, my son casually mentioned that he “threw out his arm” in gym class. I actually chastised him a bit, scolding that he had no business gunning wiffle balls at such velocity in gym class. I’m certain of a few things: 1) At 5′ 7″ he is by far the tallest, strongest kid in fifth grade, 2) He’s one of only two kids in his class who play organized ball and have any experience throwing an actual fastball, and 3) It’s something of a dick move to use an arm like his against classmates in a dodgeball-style playground game. I’m not entirely sure I enlisted the phrase “dick move,” though I can’t exactly rule that out.
Shortly thereafter, he drifts into something of a batting slump. He lacks the concealed-by-a-smiling-face-fire he’s usually possessed of at the plate, and strikes out a bunch. A bunch. A “good” outing maybe was a dink grounder that squeezed through or pop up. His coach doesn’t have him pitch at that weekend’s tournament, and I’m relieved. That Sunday, he lifted himself out of the slump by hitting one over the fence. This is not the rarity it was at age 10, and though he’s eleven, he plays with 12-year-olds, many of whom look like they possibly drove to the games themselves after they shaved that morning. Still, at age ten, eleven, twelve, a homer clears the dugout and lifts everyone’s, less the opposing pitcher’s, spirits. It’s special.
He’s called to pitch again. To say it was hard to watch is generous. He was awful. And I mean that with love. He was awful. My right-down-the-middle kid was skipping ’em a yard before the plate; he was sending air mail to Saskatchewan; he was walking in as many as hit him or as he hit with a pitch. He looked befuddled by the lapse and felt like he was letting down his teammates. He met the same fate the next time he was called to pitch, so thankfully his coach pulled him right quick that evening. Last year, my kid was his coach’s go-to guy. He was consistent, reliable, and for ten, quite unflappable. Now? He’s crumbling up there, looking to be on verge of tears at every throw.
He’s a giant, so he’s often the first baseman. It’s a good fit for tall kids who mostly can catch the ball. But they needed someone on third–a position he used to LOVE–so his coach sends him to play third. He couldn’t make the throw to first. Like not even close. And we’re yelling at him to hustle, to get his head out of his butt, act like he’s got even a vague recollection of having played the game before.
And FINALLY, now like six weeks after the gym class incident, he admits what we surely know: I can’t throw.
So I take him to his pediatrician who has him go through a throwing motion, and she hears and sees the pop. Not good, she observes. She hypothesizes it’s a ligament problem, and refers us to sports medicine. Sure, he can still play. Give him ibuprofen before his games, slap some ice on afterward, and we’ll see what sports med turns up. In the two weeks between those two appointments, he plays eleven games. Plays conservatively, solidly at first base and has probably a .666 batting average during this run. Maybe even .750. My baby was en fuego. He was. And yeah, I’ll brag on him here because his bat was out of control. You can’t help but smile when other teams’ coaches yell “back up!” to their outfielders.
Last Sunday he reveals that even tossing the ball around the horn between innings hurts, and his arm feels sore all the time. *sigh*
I could sense that the sports medicine staff knew exactly what was wrong before he removed his shirt for the start of his functional assessment. The x-rays confirmed “Little League Shoulder” and the doctor told my kid, “I really hate to be the bad guy here, but this is a season ending injury. You cannot throw with an overhand motion until I clear you, and we’re looking at about 2-3 months before you’re back at full velocity.” There were more words than that–the doc was an amiable and pretty cool guy, but that message was both the alpha and the omega. My kid’s a junior power hitter, but even if you have but a passing acquaintance with baseball, you know that throwing is a rather key element in the game. So no defense.
They described how physical therapy would play out, which made sense, and that REST and a follow-up x-ray was imperative before he could even begin PT. The doc asked if my son had any questions. He stewed for a minute, but came back empty. “You can’t throw” I said. “You can’t play first even. You can’t play defense. Do you understand?” He nodded that he did, and what did I do? Yep. Cried. But only a little because I’m a badass baseball mom.
They remarked that his scapulae “winged out” a little, and I almost pooped my pants on the spot. Naturally (well, naturally for crazy me) I jumped straight to FSHD, Facial-Scapular-Humeral Muscular Dystrophy. Because during the past half hour I received not great news containing the words scapula and humerus. And you guys? I can’t even. So I won’t. Not today.
I spoke with his coach yesterday morning. “Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” was my opener. “Can he still hit?” was his reply, and I swear that kid (he’s 24 I think, and I don’t really think of him as a kid though I could totally be his mom) could not have chosen better words for me in that moment. It made me laugh and warmed my heart to hear that his coach hoped his highest batting average hitter could keep hitting. He has a soft spot for my kid, and though I know he’s not supposed to, I love that he does. Pretty sure he had some notion about the shoulder thing anyway, having pitched through college himself before destroying his own shoulder. Yeah, he can still hit. You may have to tape his arm to his side in the dugout, but he’ll be there to finish out the season.
He’s part of a team, and you don’t quit on your team.
Maybe that is the moral of the story here–that you don’t quit on your team, you contribute in the ways you can. Or maybe it’s that you REALLY have to tune in to your children, because they will NOT admit to the severity of a weakness if they think they might let you down. Every time until the very end, when we or his coaches asked, my kid said he was fine. “No, I’m OK” was his refrain until he really wasn’t–and really? He wasn’t from the first moment he injured his arm. Eleven-year-olds don’t understand that childhood injuries can mean chronic pain as adults–how could they possibly? Eleven-year-olds want to have fun, they want to hit the ball and cross home plate.
Please, whatever you do to send good will to the world? Send up a little wish, prayer, intention, ray of light that the moral of the story isn’t that we were given an early sign of another form of neuromuscular disease. I want to keep our record at .500 here.