It’s the three-word phrase that no baseball pitcher ever wants to hear, but unfortunately, it has become part of the general baseball vocabulary, as much as the terms “home run” or “foul ball.”
The dreaded words: “Tommy John surgery.”
Nick Cerbone heard those words last year, as he was preparing for his junior season as a member of the St. Peter’s Prep baseball program.
It was late January of 2015 and Cerbone was just throwing leisurely during a workout session.
“I knew something was wrong right away,” Cerbone said. “I was pitching through the winter, but this one day, my whole arm started hurting. I took a few weeks off from throwing, but I went back to the doctor and I got the news that I needed surgery.”
And it wasn’t just surgery. It was the radical operation named after the former New York Yankees left-hander, when John had the ligaments from his right elbow removed and placed in his injured left arm. Back in the 1970s, the surgery was considered a gigantic risk. It’s become incredibly commonplace nowadays.
Still, the recovery from the surgery is a full year, so it meant that Cerbone was going to have to miss his entire junior year. It was a critical year in terms of Cerbone’s possible college recruitment and it was expected to be a huge year for the Marauders, which in turn it was, as they captured the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Hudson County Tournament title for the second time in three years.
“My first reaction was that I knew I was going to miss the whole year,” Cerbone said. “I was sad because I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to pitch. I just sat on the bench and couldn’t do anything. It was so hard watching them have a great year and I couldn’t do a thing. It was a really bad feeling to go through.”
But Prep head coach Pat Laguerre knew that Cerbone would recover and come back full throttle.
“He’s always been a hard-working kid,” Laguerre said. “Sure, there’s always concern, because you wonder whether a kid can psychologically handle it. Maybe the kid would push too hard and re-injure himself. But I have a good relationship with Nick. We talked all the time. He pitched well for us as a sophomore, so I knew he knew what to expect with the rehabilitation.”
Cerbone received some words of encouragement from his doctors.
“Right from the beginning, the doctors told me that I would come back,” Cerbone said. “I was told that I would be able to start throwing again by the end of the year. I was going to do whatever I could to make sure I did it right. I did the physical therapy and take little steps.”
“We have a relationship built on trust,” Laguerre said. “When he said he was ready, I was ready to give him the ball. He worked hard in therapy to get back.”
In November, Cerbone had the first sign he was coming back.
“It was exciting for me to start throwing a little,” Cerbone said. “Right then I knew I would be fine. As long as it didn’t hurt, I was going to get through it. It was going to get easier from there.”
Cerbone had no idea how easy it would look like it was. In his first start of the season, Cerbone combined with Jack Carey to throw a no-hitter against rival Hudson Catholic. Cerbone pitched 6 2/3 innings, striking out six and not walking a batter.
Imagine that. His first game back after missing a full year and Cerbone throws a no-no.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting that,” Cerbone said. “My first game, I knew I wasn’t throwing as hard as I’m used to, but I’ll take it.”
It’s been better since then. Last week, Cerbone beat Bayonne, allowing just five hits in six innings, but more incredibly, he had three hits in the game, including a grand slam, and delivered six RBI in a 7-2 win. It was important to Cerbone because he’s a Bayonne native.
“That was exciting to hit a grand slam against my hometown team,” Cerbone said.
Then, Cerbone pitched his second no-hitter of the season, a 10-0 whitewash of Kearny in the Hudson County Tournament quarterfinals last Tuesday. Cerbone struck out eight and walked just one in the pitching gem.
For his efforts, Cerbone has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Not a bad comeback at all.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Cerbone said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was unable to play last year and I’m able to throw a no-hitter this year. My teammates made it a lot easier for me. I feel real good out there. I’m also pretty satisfied with the way I’ve been hitting the ball. I know I’ve had my ups and downs hitting, but I’m doing better.”
When he’s not pitching, Cerbone plays the outfield.
Cerbone now leads the Marauders in the county tournament semifinals against Memorial after press time Thursday. Union City faces Bayonne in the other semifinal. The championship game is scheduled for Saturday at Caven Point Cochrane Field, weather permitting.
“I’m pleasantly surprised with the way he’s come back,” Laguerre said. “It’s not easy to bounce back like that. I like the way he’s throwing the ball. He’s not boisterous. He’s always been a quiet kid. But he has a quiet confidence that I like. He goes about his business quietly and gets the job done. He’s a quiet kid, but a talented kid who lets his game do the talking.”
Laguerre knows that if Cerbone didn’t get hurt, he probably would have had a host of college offers. With that, Cerbone has given a verbal commitment to Caldwell University and will receive a scholarship there.
“I liked what I saw when I went there,” Cerbone said. “I know a couple of guys who went there. I visited the campus and liked the campus. It’s a good school for me.”
So the comeback is complete – and complete with impressive results.
“I feel good about the way things turned out,” Cerbone said.
It’s another successful Tommy John story, a credit to medical wizardry. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.