Four Surgeries Later, Hong-Chih Kuo Dominating for Dodgers
That's OK with Kuo. He's been bucking the odds for years.
Kuo's mere presence in the Dodgers bullpen is a daily reminder about how precious -- and precarious -- a big league career is.
"We call him, affectionately, The Cockroach, because you just can't kill him," Dodgers trainer Stan Conte told FanHouse. "The medical people here understand what he goes through every night. It's a really good story."
Yet, it's a story that hasn't made its way too far from Dodger Stadium. That's partly because Kuo, a native of Taiwan, speaks limited, although serviceable English, and partly because, to be blunt, he's just a setup man.
Still, it's a story -- one involving four elbow surgeries and a mysterious case of Steve Blass Disease -- that you ought to hear. It's a story that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel ought to hear before he makes his final selections for the All-Star team.
"He epitomizes the ultimate player," Conte said, when asked to make a sales pitch on behalf of Kuo. "Every player gets hurt. Every player has slumps and every player gets down. He quietly got himself back up and got back out there, and so often we don't see that. Whether it's an injury or a slump, how you handle adversity makes you what you are. And he's handled it better than anybody I've ever seen. And that's saying a lot, because I've seen a lot of stuff."
Kuo, 28, was just shy of his 18th birthday when the Dodgers' Asian scouting department signed him in June 1999. He came to the U.S. and started pitching in the California League in 2000. He lasted just three innings before blowing out his elbow, which led to the ligament replacement procedure commonly known as Tommy John surgery.
Or, for Kuo, Tommy John surgery No. 1.
He pitched briefly in 2001, but hadn't recovered fully from the surgery so he had to have another Tommy John surgery in 2003. He pitched three games in 2004 and then finally got in a full season in '05, reaching the big leagues after pitching fewer than 100 combined innings in the minor leagues. He'd spent more time rehabbing than pitching.
Kuo would have two more elbow surgeries, and a rotator cuff injury, over the next few years. Conte, who joined the Dodgers after the 2006 season, said when he met Kuo he was a mess of physical problems and self-doubt.
"The pain in his elbow was constant throughout the years," Conte said. "He was physically and mentally drained from always trying and always having it hurt. There were plenty of times that he thought about quitting, and he had good justification for quitting. Several times he said, like many players, 'Maybe that's it. Maybe I'm done.'
"We kept saying 'one more day,' and we've been saying it for three years."
As if all that was not enough, last year added a psychological problem to all his physical ones. Kuo was rehabbing from yet another stint on the DL in May when he was throwing in the bullpen, beyond the left field fence at Dodger Stadium. Balls suddenly started flying from the bullpen onto the field. Kuo had lost all control of his pitches.
The problem continued when he was rehabbing at the Dodgers' training complex in Arizona. Kuo threw an errant pitch that hit a trainer ... who was walking on another field.
Pitchers throughout the years have had similar mental blocks that affected their ability to throw strikes. Steve Blass, a successful Pirates pitcher in the early '70s, is the most infamous victim, which is why a sudden, inexplicable, loss of control is sometimes referred to as Steve Blass Disease. Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel also had successful pitching careers ended because of it.
Dodgers veteran catcher Brad Ausmus told the Los Angeles Times that he figured that was the end of Kuo's career.
Kuo ended up seeing two sports psychologists to try to solve the problem. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said he thinks it wasn't mental, but was just a manifestation of the physical problems.
"When you are dealing with the elbow, there are so many nerves that come through there, it ends up so you can't feel the ball properly, and that ends up affecting some other things," he said.
The watershed moment in Kuo's recovery came last August. Chad Billingsley had to leave a game with an injury, so Kuo was summoned to the mound. He had to warm up in front of 50,000 people. Manager Joe Torre admitted later that he feared he'd made a mistake. A couple throws to the backstop and Kuo might have been finished.
But it was OK. Kuo got through that and he ended up finishing the season and a key member of the Dodger bullpen.
This year Kuo had more elbow issues in spring training, and he started the season on the disabled list. Since returning to action in April, he's been healthy and has pitched better than anyone else in the Dodger bullpen. He has a 1.11 ERA. His performance has been particularly important to the Dodgers because lefty George Sherrill has struggled.
It still takes Kuo about six or seven hours' worth of treatment and exercise to get himself ready to pitch each night. The Dodgers also won't pitch him back-to-back days. After four surgeries, Kuo's arm might as well be held together by staples and bubble gum. When GM Ned Colletti asks Conte about Kuo's prognosis, Conte always says: "He's one pitch away. I don't know when that pitch is."
When Kuo had doubts he could come back from the latest injury, Conte told him: "I didn't think you were going to come back in '08. I didn't think you were going to come back in '09. And here we are in 2010. We'll probably be here in five years saying 'Is this the last time?'"
Kuo's mantra, anytime he's asked about his health is, "I just try to get ready every day."
He admitted that he considered quitting many times, but eventually kept coming back because "a lot of people don't get the opportunity to do this, and I have the opportunity, so I'm going to keep going."
Predictably, Kuo also shrugs off questions about the All-Star Game.
"I don't worry about that," he said.
He's been around long enough to know that middle relievers rarely show up in All-Star Games. He's also got to compete with Arthur Rhodes, a veteran lefty who also has a compelling All-Star story.
Honeycutt said he'd stump for Rhodes to be on the team, not only because he believes middle relievers have been underrepresented in the All-Star Game, but also because it would be a nice reward for all that Kuo has endured.
"He has great ability," Honeycutt said. "It's a shame he's had the stuff he's had in the past, but this guy is a battler. He's been through a lot."