Internal Motivation

Guided by his surgeon, coach and athletic trainer, Mark Comolli took charge of his rehab and came back from a torn ulnar collateral ligament to pitch Triple-A

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning

Training & Conditioning, 11.7, October 2001,

It started like every other pitch Mark Comolli had ever thrown. Sure, he knew it had a little more import than the others he had delivered. After all, this was his first appearance in an NJCAA regional playoff game and a half-dozen pro baseball scouts were clocking every pitch.

Before the pitch even reached the catcher's mitt, Comolli knew something was wrong. But he had no way of knowing it would be almost three years before he would throw the same way again.

"I threw the pitch and felt a twinge in my elbow that went all the way down to my finger tips, which then went numb,"recalls Comolli, who was a freshman at Delaware Tech when the injury occurred in 1998. "I couldn't grip the ball, but I threw a couple of more pitches. I ended up getting them in there, but they were 75 miles an hour instead of 90, so they looked like change-ups. I had two strikes on the batter and the catcher called a slider. I hung that pitch because I couldn't snap it at all, and the batter ripped it to left."

An MRI following the playoffs revealed the full extent of the injury, a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, which connects from the upper arm to the forearm. Comolli then underwent an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, also known as "Tommy John surgery,"by Craig D. Morgan, MD, of Wilmington, Del. Following a two-year rehabilitation process, Comolli came back to the mound for Delaware Tech, earning tournament MVP honors while leading the Roadrunners to the 2001 NJCAA Division II national championship.

In recognition of his recovery from a potentially career-ending injury, Comolli is the recipient of the 2001 Training & Conditioning College Male Comeback Athlete of the Year award. Also honored is his rehab team of Craig D. Morgan, MD, Clinical Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and President of the Morgan Kalman Clinic in Wilmington, Del.; Jeff Konin, MEd, ATC, MPT, former Head Athletic Trainer at Delaware Tech and current Assistant Professor and Clinical Coordinator of Athletic Training at James Madison University; Marty Yuhas, ATC, Athletic Trainer at the Morgan Kalman Clinic; and Curtis Brock, Head Baseball Coach at Delaware Tech.

Comolli's surgery was a textbook example of the Tommy John procedure that was first developed by Dr. Frank Jobe and named after the former major league pitcher whose career was extended by the operation. "It was very similar to the way Frank Jobe described it,"Morgan says. "But I used an allograft tendon, which is a donor tendon [from a cadaver]. That way you don't have to harvest a tendon from the other arm or somewhere else, and it works just as well."

Although the reconstruction reattached the ligament in the elbow, Comolli's rehabilitation focused on the shoulder, which was the main source of his injury, according to Morgan. "The real problem is in the shoulder,"Morgan says. "Injured players get a contraction in the back part of the capsule of the shoulder. They don't even know they have it because they don't have any symptoms. But that contraction in the shoulder alters the forces on the inside part of the elbow as they accelerate to ball release. The reason why Mark is doing so well is that we got rid of the contraction in the shoulder by teaching him how to stretch right."

And stretch he did. For the first couple of weeks following surgery, Comolli kept his arm in a sling. He would occasionally rub or massage the elbow, but that was about it. Then he started a series of stretches he was given by Morgan and Yuhas.

"I would sit on the couch with a wet towel wrapped around my hand for just a little bit of weight, and let gravity take over,"Comolli says. "Just trying to straighten it out hurt. I'd also do a lot of little finger exercises, getting the forearm stretched out, and that hurt for the first month or two."

According to Morgan, the stretches are aimed at the posterior inferior capsule. "There can be a contracture or shortening of that,"he says. "And there is a specific, focused stretching program for that areača series of sleeper stretches. When someone has a reconstruction, it is imperative that they do those stretches to get rid of their contracture and prevent it from returning. Otherwise, they will retear their reconstruction."

For the next phase of his rehab, Comolli began stretching with surgical tubing. "There were three different strengths,"he says. "I started with the most flexible and tied it on a door handle or stepped on it and did all sorts of workouts. I just did a little more each time. But it was a very slow process and I would get a little frustrated at times over just how slow it was going."

About four or five months after the surgery, Comolli began throwing again, albeit at a fraction of the level he did before the injury. "I would toss the ball very lightly, maybe 15 feet or so for only five minutes, just to feel it,"he says. "A few months later I started moving back a little."

He repeated this process every day or every other day. Then, about a year after the surgery, Comolli started long tossing. His long-toss routine commenced with two or three minutes at 40 feet, followed by two to three minutes at 60 feet, then two to three minutes at 80 feet. Then he would work back down to 60 feet and finish at 40. After working at those distances for a while, he progressed to 60, 80, and 100 feet and continued to expand the distances from there. "There are different philosophies out there, but I'm big into the long toss because the progression and the distance in the long toss builds up endurance,"Morgan says.

Comolli returned to the diamond during the summer of '99, but not to the mound. He played outfield in a summer league and worked out with some Delaware Tech teammates before deciding he needed a break.

"I could tell I was overdoing it,"Comolli says. "I was trying to throw too hard, too soon. So I just stopped for a little while. I went back to swimming in the ocean, which I always loved to do and which helped in getting the flexibility back. I started playing pick up games for fun the following spring."

It wasn't until the summer of 2000 that Comolli returned to the mound. He threw limited innings for a summer league team, but still wasn't ready to completely air it out.

"I was able to hit my spots and mix my speeds, but I would keep my arm in tight instead of really letting it relax and get nice and long,"Comolli says. "I was throwing as hard as I could, but I was short-arming it."

Gradually, Comolli started feeling more comfortable. "It was stretched out nice and long and I started to get a little more pop on the fast ball,"he says. "But it took until the fall of 2000 for me to really let it go."

Although it was two years after the surgery, Comolli's coach noticed his trepidation at bringing his delivery to full speed. "He was a little hesitant to throw hard right away, which you expect,"Brock says. "But I told Mark, 'You've got to let it loose sometime. I know you're concerned, but we've got to find out.' And he agreed 100 percent.

"We went slow and when Mark thought it was time to cut loose, he did,"Brock continues. "We kept a close eye on every pitch to see if there was any aggravation at all, but there was none. He kept getting stronger and stronger and that did nothing but boost his confidence."

While his arm recovered, Comolli also worked on getting the rest of his body back in shape. "I wasn't trying to bulk up, but I wanted to get stronger, and get my legs, stomach, and flexibility back,"he says. "I worked hard all fall and winter, and by the time spring came I was ready to go."

Comolli went 10-2 during the spring of 2001, helping his team to a 40-5 record and its first NJCAA Division II title. He was named the tournament MVP after winning both his World Series starts, registering a 0.53 ERA with 20 strikeouts and just two walks over 17 innings.

"We never really brought up the injury during the season,"Brock says. "Every once in a while I would ask him how his arm was feeling and he would always say, 'It's great.' I don't think he had a sore arm all season, which is remarkable."

Comolli's mechanics were unaltered after his return, but Brock did observe some other changes in Comolli's pitching. "From the time he was hurt to this year, Mark's maturity has come to the front and you can really tell that on the mound,"Brock says. "He was more a power pitcher than a finesse pitcher before, and now I think he's a combination of both."

Another remarkable aspect of Comolli's comeback was the extent of work he did on his own. While many athletes recovering from a major surgery make daily trips to a clinic or athletic training room, Comolli did most of his exercises at home.

"Mark took the initiative to do most everything,"Konin says. "I don't mean to say he wasn't compliant with me, but he was determined to get back on his own."

Konin points out the mental hurdles Comolli had to overcame. "The psychological impact of an injury like that is very challenging,"Konin says. "There's a point where you can't move your elbow and you're wondering if you'll ever throw a ball again, let alone be competitive. You hear stories about how some coaches and scouts at the next level won't look at you anymore because now you've had a surgery and you'll never be the same. So to overcome the whole psychological component, you have to be determined to continue forward. And he was driven to do well and come back and get on the mound again."

Despite being praised by all involved for his hard work and dedication, Comolli admits there were times he wondered if it was worth it. "I was in the best shape of my life coming off my freshman year at Delaware Tech and to be doing nothing was really hard,"he says. "But I just it took it day by day."

Following his MVP World series performance, Comolli was chosen by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 25th round of baseball's amateur draft. He split the 2001 season between the Blue Jays' Class A teams in Auburn, N.Y., and Charleston, W.V., posting a 3-3 record with 48 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 51 innings.

He also made an emergency start for the Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.) Sky Chiefs, where he took a moment to reflect on all he had gone through. "It was a 50-50 chance that I would ever come back,"he says. "But I came back and won a national championship and got the MVP honors. A couple of weeks later I get drafted and then I'm pitching in Triple-A. A lot of players never get the chance to ever pitch in Triple-A, so it was all pretty amazing."