Once a Top Prospect, Pitcher Works on Returning To Form
TAMPA, Fla., May 4 -- He begins by throwing 25 pitches, all fastballs, straight down the middle. Once told his body is ready, he then progresses to 35, then 45, then 70. At this point, he mixes in his changeup, as well as his cutter and devastating curveball. University of Tampa pitcher Sean Bierman is in the bullpen, but he is not prepping for a game. Figuratively speaking, he's been in the bullpen for almost a year now.
On June 11, 2010, Sean Bierman had Tommy John Surgery to reconstruct the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow. It’s an injury that kept him from throwing a baseball for six months, and took him off the mound for eight. Once rated by Baseball America the seventh best prospect out of New Jersey, and a 42nd round draft pick by the Cincinnati Reds, Bierman, 22, now finds himself dreaming of the day he can pitch again.
“It’s frustrating. It’s really frustrating,” said Bierman. “All I think about before I go to bed every night is that first outing I have back, how unbelievable that’s gonna feel because of all the work I’ve put into this year.”
Bierman played high school ball at Kinnelon High School, located in his hometown of Kinnelon, N.J. There he was a first-team all-county selection as well as the captain for both the baseball and soccer teams during his junior and senior years. A pitcher athletic enough to also play centerfield and first base, Bierman was chosen by the Reds in the 2007 Major League Baseball draft. He had a decision to make; forego a college education to go pro, or attend Vanderbilt University, the school he committed to prior to his senior year of high school. The decision was based on a predetermined dollar amount that the selecting team would have to pay him to sacrifice his education.
“The number we put out there was high because I value my education,” Bierman explained in regards to the monetary request that his he and his family decided on. “And I wasn’t worth what I wanted to forgo college, so I decided to go to Vanderbilt.”
Bierman’s father, John, who got him into sports at a young age, was there to help in the decision.
“I think his dreams’ always been to give it a shot and play pro [but] I think he realized that he needed to mature more,” said John Bierman “I think he realized it was important to get an education while still competing and improving.”
In two years at Vanderbilt, the left-hander pitched an even 60 innings, striking out 60 batters. He was displaying solid numbers at one of the premier programs in Division I baseball, but he wasn’t happy.
“I wanted to play a bigger role. I’ve always been one of those guys to take a leadership role on a team, and lead by example and lead through words, and I wasn’t getting that at Vanderbilt,” Bierman said. “Whether it was my talent, or I was always fighting being a little bit injured, it just wasn’t fun for me. I always want to be a leader on the team and that’s when I decided I needed to transfer to somewhere I could possibly do that.”
Bierman transferred to the University of Tampa in the fall of 2009. He said he was informed of the baseball program by university alumni and former MLB player Tino Martinez. What ultimately attracted him to UT was Head Coach Joe Urso and Assistant /Pitching Coach Sam Militello, who, at the time, were both going into their 10th season with the program.
“Both the coach’s reputations are incredible,” Bierman said. “In my mind, they’re the best at what they do. I’ve been round a lot of other coaches, and you can’t compare them. “
The coaching staff shares similar sentiments for Bierman, both on and off the mound.
“When he’s on that mound, you just see a difference,” said Urso. “He just has that personality it takes, that competitive drive it takes to be successful and to be a number one pitcher. He’s probably the best athlete on the team.”
Indeed, he was the ace of a UT Spartan squad which went 46-11 en route to a bid in the Division II NCAA Championships last year. In nine appearances, Bierman posted a 4-2 record with a 3.60 ERA, striking out 31 batters and walking just seven. But his season, as well as his dream of playing professionally, was stifled. He made just five starts during the 2009-2010 regular season, his last one coming April 2.
Bierman would often go weeks between starts due to pain in his throwing arm that would subside then return. An arthrogram, an X-Ray using dye to shows tears in a ligament, performed at the beginning of the season showed no signs of damage. Bierman and UT Head Athletic Trainer Scott Brickett explained that the tears in Bierman’s ulnar collateral were mircotears, too small to be detected by the MRI.
Bierman said that he knew something was wrong, but came back in the postseason to pitch two more games in search of a national championship. After the season ended in May, more studies done at Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine in Pensacola, Fla., concluded Bierman needed reconstructive surgery. He had the surgery done at the Andrews Institute, but his extensive rehabilitation program is in the hands of Brickett.
“For him, his biggest obstacle is the peaks and valleys of the rehabilitation process,” said Brickett while in the midst of stretching Bierman’s arm in a rehab session. “You would love to see a nice linear graph of his progress, where he progressively gets a little bit better each day. But the rehabilitation process isn’t like that. He has really good days and then he has a bad day where he slumps back down.”
Brickett said it’s important for Bierman to stay focused on his goals but not on the short-term valleys. There are days where the elbow is going to hurt, but he has to keep things in perspective.
Bierman’s rehab sessions with Brickett are intimate. To a certain extent, it’s Brickett’s responsibility to see that the left-hander finds himself healthy, both physically and mentally. Other players mosey about the facility while the music of Linkin Park blasts in the background. Brickett and Bierman exchange jokes and conversation while the trainer manipulates the pitcher’s arm.
“Did you hear that pop?” Bierman says nervously.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it. That was just your shoulder,” Brickett responds with a grin. Likewise, Bierman smiles, acknowledging his heightened sense of caution.
He rehabs four times a week for approximately an hour, sometimes on his own. On days when he is not rehabbing, he can be found either throwing bullpen sessions, in the weight room or working on his conditioning. Brickett explained that with Tommy John Surgery, the ideal recovery rate is that after six months, you can throw. After eight months, you can throw from a mound and after a year, you can play ball again.
“Honestly, I think he’s ahead of schedule where I thought he would be,” said Brickett, who added that although this surgery has come a long way in the past decade, any medical procedure never has a perfect success rate.
“He was a very good college pitcher. He’s got a 90 percent chance of getting back to that,” Brickett stated, explaining that pitchers can come back from the rehab process stronger than before because of the strength that is rebuilt as well as the time put in to work on specific aspects of pitching mechanics.
A rehabilitation process as long as this one requires a great amount of patience and diligence. His family, coaches and teammates are confident he has what it takes.
“He’s always worked hard; he’s always team first,” said teammate and friend Evan Stobbs. “He’s just always a hard worker on and off the field.”
A senior by academic standards, Bierman is currently a junior by NCAA eligibility standards. Although he did pitch last season, he was fortunate enough to receive a medical redshirt, due to the fact his injury held him to under 20 percent of UT’s games. With his redshirt already used, Bierman is eligible for play this season. Should he recover quickly enough, Bierman could return to help his team for the postseason, as the Spartans are on pace to compete in the South Regional Tournament.
“It we don’t have any setbacks, we could see him on the mound at the end of the year when it matters most,” said Urso. However, both Urso and Brickett praised Coach Militello for his caution and care with all pitching injuries.
“A lot of schools, if you tell them that you’re hurt, you’ll just never pitch there again, or they’ll just say you gotta suck it up and pitch through that,” said Brickett.
Bierman hopes to return this year, but knows it’s more realistic to prepare himself for the start of next season. Regardless of the setback, he still maintains his hope to play professionally.
“I want to play in the bigs. That’s my goal,” Bierman said. “As stupid as it might sound - it’s my fourth year of college, I transferred, I’m injured, I’m not playing - I still really believe that, and it’s still my goal.”
Bierman’s hopes aren’t just wishful thinking. In his time at UT, Coach Urso has seen 35 student-athletes be selected for the MLB Draft, and thinks Bierman will follow suit.
“I expect him to have a full recovery and I expect him to have a long successful professional career,” the head coach said.
Looking back on the opportunity to sign with the Reds and play minor league baseball, he has no regrets for attending Vanderbilt and eventually ending up at Tampa.
“I’ve thought about that a lot. I wish things would’ve worked out at other places a little bit better, but I’m happy where I am,” Bierman said.
“I would’ve gotten hurt if I started playing [professionally] anyway. I would be hurt now and I’d be sitting there, probably by myself, not with all these good people around me helping me out. I don’t have any regrets. I’m almost done with college and I’ve loved every minute of it.”
Miles Parks also contributed to this report.