Lincoln takes long road to Reds
Four years away, two Tommy John surgeries don't deter hurler
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- On May 3, 2004, reliever Mike Lincoln pitched 1 1/3 innings of relief for the Cardinals against the Cubs. The last batter he faced, Derrek Lee, hit a home run.What has Lincoln done since to fill his time? "Surgery and rehab, Lincoln said. "That's all I've done." Lincoln said. Residing among a fringe group of ballplayers, Lincoln has been an exception to a generally accepted rule. Ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery -- aka Tommy John surgery -- has become seemingly commonplace. It's also widely regarded such a successful career-saver for many pitchers and players. But it doesn't always work. Baseball Prospectus reported in 2004 that the procedure had a failure rate of 10-15 percent. Unfortunately for Lincoln, who is seeking a bullpen spot in Reds camp as a non-roster invite, he fell into that minority. Lincoln had Tommy John surgery performed on his right elbow July 13, 2004, by Dr. George Paletta. Until his comeback attempt this spring, he hadn't pitched another inning at any professional level. "It just never felt right," Lincoln said. "Who knows? Maybe I came back too fast, I'm not sure. They had to fix it again since it didn't work out the first time." The right-handed Lincoln had the operation performed on him a second time on Sept. 24, 2006. This spring, the 32-year-old Lincoln is trying to secure a spot in the Reds' bullpen. He wears a No. 84 jersey on his back. In Cincinnati, it's only a good number to have when you're Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. In baseball, it's often reserved for rookies with long odds. "A lot of times, I've seen guys stay out a couple of years," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "Back in the old school, if you stayed out for any period of time, you weren't coming back. Now with so many teams in need of quality arms, I've seen guys stay out and not only rehab but give their body a natural chance to regroup, heal and get stronger." The lengthy hiatus from the Majors had Lincoln hungry to get back. He broke in with the Twins in 1999 and was with the Pirates from 2001-03. He made 13 appearances for St. Louis in 2004 before injuring his elbow.
"I'm thankful to have an opportunity to be back out here," Lincoln said. "Just the feeling of running out on the field, I can feel it every day. I could feel it when I was driving to the park. I never really took it for granted, but it's just always there. You don't expect to get hurt or for the game to be taken away from you like that. Now I feel like I have a second chance and I want to make the best of it."Lincoln, who is 13-24 with a 5.16 ERA in 161 career games, has reported no pain or setbacks since the second Tommy John surgery, which was performed at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota by Dr. Bernard Morrey. Since he was no longer part of the Cardinals organization, Lincoln had to pay for the operation and rehab out of his own pocket. "I was clear with him," Lincoln said. "I said, 'If you could give me a chance, I'll do everything I can to get back.' They were worried about wasting my time by doing the surgery after it didn't work. If it failed again, it's a year out of your life, basically." A throwing program began nine months following Lincoln's second surgery. First, he worked out at home in the Sacramento area but later worked out at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville around the likes of Twins All-Star closer Joe Nathan and Royals top pitching prospect Luke Hochevar. Once he felt 100 percent again, Lincoln instructed agent Steve Hilliard to start calling clubs to put his name in circulation. The pitcher said he worked out for 12 different clubs during the past winter. The Reds signed Lincoln to a Minor League contract on Feb. 5 after watching him throw a few weeks earlier from an indoor mound beneath Great American Ball Park. "He threw really well," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "I saw a guy that was fired up about getting back into the game. He took some time off to strengthen his body and let his arm rehab than he might not otherwise." In his one Spring Training game thus far, Lincoln has worked one scoreless inning with one strikeout. Manager Dusty Baker and the club have liked what they've seen in camp to this point. "I actually talked to [special advisor to the president] Walt Jocketty about him," Baker said. "He had him in St. Louis. He said he's actually throwing better than he was. I've heard that many times. Lincoln looks like he has more life than I remember him having." If that continues to be the case, Lincoln could potentially move from Tommy John surgery cautionary tale to the latest success story.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.