Typically, the junior season is the most important for a high school baseball player.
Tim Steflik, an Evans High School baseball player, is returning from elbow surgery to pitch this season. He says he took the injury hard last year but is pushing himself to regain his former pitching speed nearing 90 mph.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Most college and professional scouts try to see the best players before their senior season. This is when the standout players attend camps and play on travel ball teams to get noticed.
Not Tim Steflik.
The Evans pitcher sat on the bench and watched.
He watched his teammates Mike Armstrong and Doug Wylie go to Mercer after the 2004 season. He watched Brad Freeman and Ryan Pressley sign with Middle Georgia a month ago based on standout junior seasons. But Steflik never got his chance to show the scouts what he could do.
Steflick was on the mound in March against Cross Creek during a routine start. In the fourth inning, everything changed.
While throwing his 71st pitch of the game, the then-junior felt a pop in his elbow.
"My shoulder had been popping out of place, so I didn't think it was that big of a deal," Steflik said. "There was some initial swelling, but I didn't think much of it."
Steflik tried to throw a warm-up toss, but it bounced about halfway to the plate. The pop in the elbow turned into a tear.
"It felt like something opened up inside of my arm," he said. "I can't describe the pain."
After more than a week without being able to throw, Steflik decided it was time to go to the doctor. He got the worst news possible: a torn ulnar collateral ligament.
"It sent my world crashing down," Steflik said. "Baseball was all I had in life. All I wanted to do was play baseball. Everything was turned upside down. I just didn't know how to deal with it."
Doctors told the pitcher he had two options: Let the tear heal, an option with a 50-50 chance of success, or have tendon transplant surgery, which carries an 80 percent success rate.
The pitcher, who could touch 90 mph on the radar gun, now had to leave his fate as a ballplayer up to chance.
"It was too much to deal with," he said. "I took it harder than I should have. I thought I would just run track and give it all up. I felt like I had no one to turn to."
Steflik said he was never close to his mother, Debra, and the two had become especially estranged since his father died when he was in the eighth grade.
"I really took everything out on her," Steflik said.
A few weeks after the injury, Steflik said, he apologized for the way he had treated his mother. The two decided he would have the tendon transplant surgery and contacted prominent Birmingham, Ala., orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.
Andrews had put Atlanta Braves' pitcher John Smoltz's elbow back together, and his Birmingham office is the destination of just about every professional athlete in need of knee, shoulder or elbow surgery.
After his April 1 surgery, Steflik couldn't throw a ball off the mound until November. He was in a soft cast for a week, and wore a hinge brace for three months.
"It was impressive to see how hard he was working," said teammate Brad Freeman. "Even though he had the surgery, he was out there working out as hard as anyone."
During rehab, Steflik talked to others who had experienced the surgery, such as Redan High School (Stone Mountain, Ga.) player Chris Nelson and former Greenbrier and USC-Aiken star Bradley Key, both drafted last year. Evans coach Ricky Beale contacted coaches with players who had undergone the surgery.
"I think it helped Timmy to talk with those guys that were drafted," Beale said.
More than three months into his throwing regimen, Steflik is starting to regain his swagger on the mound. He pushes trainer Benetta Albaugh to let him throw harder than he should. Two weeks ago, he threw 86 mph when he was supposed to be at 80 mph.
"He's a competitor," she said. "He wants to be able to throw as hard as he can all the time. But he listened well and knows he shouldn't test it."
The surgery makes some pitchers stronger because transplanted tendons have three times the normal amount of collagen. This can add a few miles per hour to a pitcher.
"I want to be around 93 during the end of the season," Steflik said.
But he also is realistic and knows he won't be in the starting rotation when the season starts.
Beale says he would like to use the senior as a relief pitcher.
"If he comes back and can throw 90 mph, we will have one of the top closers in the state," Beale said.
"I'll do whatever they need," Steflik added. "I'll start. I'll come in from the bullpen. I'll pinch run. I'll shag fly balls. Whatever it takes to get this team to a state title."
Colleges have taken a wait-and-see approach. Steflik says he will go to tryouts and play travel ball this summer, if needed. If it doesn't work out, he says he will join the Army.
"But it will work out," he said. "I refuse to fail. There is no other option but to succeed. I have a lot to prove to everyone. I plan to do just that."
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