June 14, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Justin Garza remembers the burning pain shooting up his forearm. He remembers someone helping him shower and bathe himself. He remembers not being able to cut his own chicken. Scoop his own cereal. Brush his own teeth.
May 27 marked one year from when the Cal State Fullerton All-American right-hander had Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow. A year of rehabilitation, of placing his major-league dreams on hold, of chasing a sport that seemed stolen from him, has Garza determined to make a comeback.
He is recovering well, he said, and feeling great. He hopes to pitch in the MLB Arizona League sometime this season. He has long envisioned the moment, especially during the dog days of rehab from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m., when he questioned if his arm would ever be able to throw again.
But he kept throwing.
“How bad do you really want to play again?” Garza would tell himself, pushing through each exercise. “You want to give up sometimes, you want to take the easy way. … But if I ever want to go out there and pitch again like I used to, the only option is to do this. Then do it again tomorrow. Then do it again the next day.”
Leaving the mound
Garza learned his fate at the doctor’s office on May 11, 2015. He couldn’t face his parents waiting downstairs. They believed in him more than anyone else.
His father, Charlie, hit with him for hours every Sunday; his mother, Linda, never missed a game. Garza, an only child, didn’t want them to think his career was over, that the dreams they shared as a family were over.
But he couldn’t mask his pain.
Two days earlier, Garza felt fine pitching the first three innings against UC Santa Barbara. His first pitch of the fourth inning hurt badly. The second, worse. The third, even worse. The fourth, unmanageable, as his arm burned.
He left the mound.
“I think right away we knew something was wrong because Justin would never take himself out of a game,” Linda said.
The MRI revealed a significant tear that required surgery. “I’m sorry,” the doctor told Garza, as if delivering the news of a death.
Garza was spooked. He knew that Tommy John has a relatively high success rate but it can derail careers.
“Just because you have Tommy John doesn’t mean you’re going to come back,” said former Fullerton athletic trainer Justin Hostert, now with the San Diego Padres. “So many people have it and come back and still play, but whether they’re the same or not, I don’t know.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Fullerton would earn a berth to the College World Series. The MLB Draft was coming up.
Breaking the news to his parents, Garza began to cry. He vowed to keep playing. “I don’t know if he was just trying to make us feel better, but he was real strong,” Charlie said. “He said, ‘I’m going to get better, dad. I’m going to be OK. I’m going to get through this.’”
Garza called his best friend, Joe Navilhon, who had Tommy John and now pitches for USC.
“His demeanor in that phone call was upset,” Navilhon said. “But I could hear it in his voice – this was just stuff that would fuel his fire.”
It was June 9, the second day of the draft. Garza was not hosting a party with friends and family, waiting for his name to be called, as most prospects do.
He was getting his cast removed and his stitches taken out at the doctor’s office.
Before his injury, Garza was an All-American, a member of the USA Collegiate National Team, a Big West Conference pitcher of the year. In 2014, he became the fourth Titan to toss a no-hitter – the first to accomplish the feat since ’01.
“He was huge for us,” Fullerton pitching coach Jason Dietrich said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he’s competitive as heck when you get him between the white lines. He wants that ball.”
No one expected much of Garza growing up. He didn’t pitch until he was 14. He only checked into the game as a freshman at Bonita High (La Verne) because a teammate suffered an injury.
But soon Garza’s poised play started turning heads. He garnered a handful of college scholarship offers. But most still knocked his slight, 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame. He can throw hard – for a small guy. Not going to last in Division I ball.
“He’s always had a chip on his shoulder and has wanted to prove everyone wrong,” his father said. “That drives him.”
The UCL injury gave him another chip. Returning home from the doctor, Garza’s phone rang. It was his agent: “Hey, you’re going to be a Cleveland Indian. They’re going to take you right now with their next pick so listen up. Congratulations.”
Garza couldn’t believe it. He was selected in the eighth round, 244th overall. He and his parents cried.
“It makes me really lucky that somebody took a chance on me,” said Garza, who was also drafted by the Indians out of high school. “It was kind of like a relief. Finally, this first phase is over.”
The next phase was less certain, as a year of rehab awaited. What kind of player would he be by the end?
Grinding it out
The sun beat down Garza’s back at 115 degrees when he arrived in Arizona for rehab at the Indians’ spring-training facility. He was alone, without friends and family, for the first time in his life.
Five days a week he completed the same exercises for hours at a time. Things that once seemed simple, like lifting 2-pound dumbells, became difficult.
Some days his arm felt good, other days it didn’t. He battled his own doubts. He questioned if his critics, who predicted he wouldn’t make it due to his size, were right.
“It’s more mental than anything,” said Dietrich, who had Tommy John surgery as an 18-year-old. “Mentally, you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this again. Maybe I won’t throw hard again. Will I have my mechanics again?’ You question yourself a bit, but that’s where you gotta stay strong and trust in all the work you’re doing.”
Garza worked harder and harder. He read biographies about pitchers. He studied game film of pitchers before and after Tommy John to see if their mound presence changed.
He’s now able to work out longer than ever before, challenging himself from early in the morning to late in the afternoon. He runs every day and lifts three times a week. He gained 20 pounds of muscle.
He’s now throwing bullpens at near full effort. He’s working on his full arsenal of fastballs, change-ups and sliders. Garza said he feels great.
“I just feel like a whole new person,” Garza said. “I’m more grateful for the opportunity that I have. I’m humbled by the process that I had to go through and the journey I took.”
“I never thought I’d be able to get through it at one point. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this again, man,’” Garza said. “I had to mature a lot. I had to grow up. I had to learn a lot about myself.”
Garza hopes to be ready for the Arizona League this summer. Taking the mound, he envisions muscle memory taking over. His eyes, sharp. His feet, grounded. His shoulder, his elbow, in motion. His hand, his wrist, his fingers, following.
This is something no one can take away.
“A lot of times he didn’t play in (high school) travel ball because he wasn’t one of the big kids,” Linda said. “And now we look back, and some of those guys aren’t playing anymore. But Justin is.”