College baseball: Catawba pitcher Ryan Street upbeat facing Tommy John surgery

Published 12:01 am Sunday, May 7, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — Catawba College student Ryan Street is a part-time baseball pitcher and full-time optimist.

Tommy John surgery is the next opponent Street will face. That surgery is scheduled for Monday.

But the right-hander already is looking beyond the surgery and the rehab ordeal to that sunny day when he can once again toe the rubber and throw without pain at Newman Park.

Street refuses to see “TJ” surgery as a setback in his baseball career or his life. He views it all as a learning experience.

“I’m majoring in exercise science and sports medicine, so my surgery and rehab is going to be almost like a summer internship program for me in physical therapy,” Street said. “I know exactly what the operation involves, exactly how they’re going to repair my elbow. I understand all the phases of the rehab. I’m well prepared for it.”

Tommy John surgery is elbow joint surgery, a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament. The surgery has been around for almost 50 years now.

A physician will cut a tendon from Street’s hamstring and use it to replace the damaged one in his right elbow.

The first patient to have “TJ” surgery obviously was Tommy John, a fine left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who was faced with a career-ending elbow injury in 1974. But John pitched in the big leagues another 15 years after what was considered a radical and experimental option at the time.

Since 1974, medical knowledge has been gained through experience and numerous baseball careers have been saved and extended. The surgery’s total success rate is better than 80 percent. While it’s not exactly a routine procedure, it’s getting closer to being just that. The length of the rehab process is steadily dropping.  There was a time when full recovery took about 18 months, but that’s no longer the case.

Street plans to be ready to take the mound for coach Jim Gantt and the Catawba Indians in the spring of 2024. That’s not just wishful thinking, it’s a realistic goal.

As part of the high school graduating class of 2020, Street is no stranger to adversity. His senior high school season, which would have been his first chance to really shine for the Carson Cougars, was ended by COVID-19 shortly after it started.

He’d prepared daily for that senior season, trimming down and adding muscle during long hours in the weight room. Then the season he had dreamed about turned to ashes in the blink of an eye.

Street was fortunate that Catawba coaches had watched him pitch in the local fall league. They could see the growth he had made from his junior year and they could see the potential. They could see his competitiveness. They could see that while his velocity wasn’t eye-popping, his release point was deceptive. He came at hitters from a little different angle. They could see he wasn’t afraid to throw strikes and challenge hitters. They could see he was smart. He made adjustments the second time through lineups.

So Street got a chance at Catawba.

“He’s going to mature some more physically, and his breaking ball is developing and shows a lot of potential,” Gantt said at the time. “He’s a great student. He’s a high-character guy. We know he’s going to be a great teammate.”

In the summer of 2020, there was no official American Legion action, but Street pitched very well for the Gantt-coached Rowan County team that played “NC3” baseball.

But as a Catawba freshman it was sort of like being back on the Carson jayvee team for Street.

COVID redshirts had provided an unexpected additional year of play for a number of Catawba standouts, many of them local stars who seemingly were around forever. It was like Catawba had 10 assistant coaches. Guys like Hunter Shepherd, Bryan Ketchie, Lee Poteat and Jeremy Simpson. They broke some records, won a lot of games.

With all that experience in the dugout, freshmen such as Street were way down the depth chart in 2021. He only pitched in three games as a freshman.

But he didn’t get frustrated.

“I realized that was a year to learn and I took advantage of having those older guys around,” Street said. “They were good guys. I asked a lot of questions.”

As a sophomore in 2022, Street’s role  with the Indians increased and his contributions were positive. He went 3-0. Catawba trusted him to pitch in tough games. He was in there at crunch time for one-run wins against Tusculum and Mars Hill.

“For me, it’s all about being comfortable on the mound, and the more I pitched, the more I could see my teammates and coaches trusted me and the more comfortable I felt,” Street said. “I was able to relax mentally. I could just go out there and pitch and I didn’t have to over-think. I threw a lot of strikes.”

Street is primary a fastball-changeup pitcher, although he’ll mix in enough sliders to keep hitters off balance. The changeup probably is his best pitch. He’s got an exceptional one.

Street had made so much progress by the start of 2023 season that Gantt was counting on him as a one of his top three arms, as one of the guys who would start the weekend South Atlantic Conference games.

The 5-foot-10 Street threw a pretty terrific game early in the season against Lenoir-Rhyne.

But his season came to an abrupt end on March 8 when the Indians played in Dahlonega against North Georgia.

Street was pitching his strongest game of the season and had taken a 3-1 lead to the sixth against a stout lineup.

“I’d thrown about 70 pitches, was cruising, still feeling great,” Street said. “But then I threw a changeup for a strikeout, and I felt this weird pain in my arm. It was like someone had stuck in a knife in my elbow.”

There were two men out and no one on base, and Street wanted to get the Indians through the inning. He gritted his teeth and pitched. But he walked the next hitter, and knew he needed to come out.

The relief pitcher promptly allowed a two-run, game-tying homer to the first man he faced, and it was a game Catawba would eventually lose in the 11th inning. One more tough road loss in a season that had a lot of them.

Street and Catawba hadn’t imagined TJ surgery right away. Street was confident he was just experiencing the symptoms of a tired arm, but there was persistent pain in the elbow every time he tried to throw in the bullpen for the next few weeks.

Then an MRI revealed the elbow ligament tear.

Pain was something Street had always been able to push through, but this was more than pain. This was a serious injury, and it was time for surgery if he ever wanted to pitch again.

And he definitely wanted to pitch again.

“I’ve talked to a lot of guys who have had ‘TJ’ and most of them come back stronger than ever,” Street said. “I realize it’s going to be process of seven to nine months for me, but I definitely will be back. We played so many young guys this year, but I believe we’re set up now to have a great team next season. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to be part of it.”

Monday’s surgery will be performed in Charlotte. Street isn’t dreading it. He genuinely sounds like he’s looking forward to it.

He jokes that he’ll probably pick up a few miles an hour on his fastball after the surgery.

“I’m staying positive, looking at this surgery as an opportunity,” Street said. “I’m going to learn everything I can.”