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Saunders breaks arm again

In his fifth rehab outing on the way back from his 1999 injury, the left-hander suffers the same fate. "This is devastating for Tony Saunders,'' GM Chuck LaMar says.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Tony Saunders screams after reinjuring his arm pitching for St. Petersburg of the FSL.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Tony Saunders' career came to an apparent end Thursday night 12 blocks and 15 months from where he threw his final major-league pitch.

Saunders, pitching for the St. Petersburg Devil Rays in the fifth start of what had been a remarkable rehabilitation, fractured the humerus in his left arm while throwing a pitch and had surgery late Thursday.

"As far as returning to baseball and becoming a major-league pitcher again the prognosis is poor," said Koco Eaton, the Devil Rays orthopaedic physician. "As far as gaining full use of his arm, being a good father and husband, the prognosis is great."

The injury occurred on the third pitch of the third inning of the Devil Rays' game against the Clearwater Phillies. Saunders' 2-and-0 fastball -- his 33rd pitch of the game -- sailed to the left, bouncing off the backstop as the left-hander crumbled on the mound, letting out several screams and squeezing his left arm between his legs.

The latest injury ends what would have been one of the most courageous comebacks in baseball history. Saunders hoped to pitch in the major leagues in September, and was one or two starts from his goal.

Saunders, 26, suffered a spiral break of his humerus on May 26, 1999, on the 53rd pitch of a game against the Texas Rangers at Tropicana Field. Like Thursday, the ball sailed left, all the way to the backstop. Saunders reacted the same way in that instance.

Rick Vaughn, the Devil Rays vice president of public relations, was sitting in the front row next to the first-base dugout Thursday night.

"He had that same look on his face," said Vaughn, who witnessed both events. "To see it once was pretty horrifying. To see it twice is unimaginable."

Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar drove to the emergency room as soon as he got the news.

"This is devastating for Tony Saunders," LaMar said. "Your heart just goes out to Tony and his family."

Eaton said the injury was in the "same general area" as Saunders' first break, but not in the exact place.

In what turned out to be an eerie prediction last month Saunders was convinced his arm was sound.

"It's not even an issue with me right now," he said in late July. "I know it's healthy, I know it's healed and I know nothing's going to happen to it. The doctors joke that it will never break there again. It may break around it, but it will never break there again."

Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said the team will stand by its pitcher and do whatever it takes to make him comfortable.

"I don't know what to say. I'm in shock," Naimoli said. "This has got to be devastating to his family. I can think of few times that I've felt as bad as I do now. I feel like this has happened to a member of my family. ... As far as I'm concerned he will always be a member of the Devil Rays family."

An estimated crowd of 300 sat silently in a light drizzle as trainers and coaches rushed to the mound. A fire-rescue truck, lights flashing, parked on the infield dirt between first and second base as paramedics wrapped the arm tightly with a gauze bandage. Saunders was transported to Bayfront Medical Center where he had surgery about 9 p.m. to put the bone back in position.

"You could kind of hear it before you knew what was happening," Clearwater batter Skip Kiil said. "It sounded like a rubber band snapping. I kind of flinched at first and then I realized what had happened. Your heart has to go out to the guy."

Saunders' road to recovery started in February when he began working out. He began throwing in April, advanced to face hitters in live batting practice in May and was competing in simulated games by June.

He made his first minor-league rehab start on Aug. 2 for Class A Charleston, going two innings. Five days later he pitched three innings, throwing 27 pitches with no problem.

Saunders moved up to St. Petersburg to make his third and fourth starts and increase his workload to four innings or 60 pitches. He tired toward the end of both outings even with two extra days of rest. Three other major-league pitchers suffered similar injuries on the mound in the last dozen years -- Dave Dravecky, Tom Browning and John Smiley -- and none made it back to pitch effectively. Dravecky had his arm amputated when it was discovered cancer had weakened the bone.

Saunders, however, was convinced he would be the first to make a successful return.

"When you tell him he can't do something," his wife, Joyce, said earlier this month. "He has to prove you wrong."

A group of Rays players and Phillies coaches held the tarp that covers the pitchers mound over the group of trainers crowded around Saunders in an attempt to divert the rain that began falling shortly after the injury occurred.

"He wasn't really saying anything to anybody and the doctors weren't really trying to talk to him," said pitcher Barrett Wright, who rehabbed his knee with Saunders during spring training. "He looked right at me when they were putting him in the ambulance and he kind of had a look like "Why?' on his face. I didn't know what to say. Tears came to my eyes."

Saunders appeared to be pitching normally. He allowed two hits to open the game and a home run to lead off the second inning, but he moved his pitches around effectively, hit the mid-80s on the radar gun and struck out two.

"I thought he looked better tonight than last time," said Rays pitcher Nathan Ruhl, who was charting the pitches. "His velocity was there and he was making good pitches. When I saw I kind of covered my face with the clipboard and said a little prayer."

- Staff writers Marc Topkin and Bruce Lowitt contributed to this report.

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