WHEN HIS RIGHT ELBOW SNAPPED, ARON GARCIA HEARD A POP. Then came waves of pain in an arm that a few months earlier had struck out 102 batters in 47 innings. "I was really scared," he said. "My arm just hung there."
Last summer Aron Garcia pitched on ABC's Wide World of Sports, hit a home run on ESPN, led his team to a national championship and heard Jim Palmer pay him the ultimate compliment—the three-time Cy Young Award winner compared Garcia's arm to his own. Now the young pitcher had fractured the growth plate at the end of his humerus, the long bone of the upper arm. Growth plates are the mortar of growing bones; in kids, they are still fragile. When he picked up a handball on Dec, 4 and tossed it to a friend, the muscles and ligaments of Garcia's elbow held firm and the growth plate snapped.
"I thought my career was over," he said.
The next day, Aron Garcia went under the knife. He had just turned 13.
Aron's career started early. When he was three, he was running down errant throws while his father, Bob, and older brother, Bobby, played catch in the backyard of their Long Beach, Calif., home. "Aron was a competitor from the start," says his dad. "He'd track down anything."
Bob was determined to give his two sons a chance to play pro ball—a chance their dad never had. Although he grew up poor in a Long Beach barrio where gang warfare was career option No. 1, Bob was, until recently, a senior vice-president of Executive Savings and Loan in Marina del Rey. As a strapping six-foot teenager, he had earned a reputation as a fighter—and the nickname Gunner—for his street exploits. Turning to sports in high school, he was an outstanding football and baseball player. Then came 11 months of combat in Vietnam, where he won the Silver Star. His citation for the medal reads: "Despite the continuing barrage of insurgent small arms fire directed at him, he concentrated his fire upon the mortar position, silenced the mortar, killed the insurgent mortar team and relieved his company from a most precarious position. His outstanding courage undoubtedly saved the lives of many." Bob returned from Vietnam without a scratch—and promptly shattered his left leg in a motorcycle crash.
"The doctors wanted to take my leg," he recalls. "I told them no way. So they did what they could to put it back together. They said that I would never walk right again. I walked, but my playing days were finished."
Ten operations over the course of the next eight years repaired Bob's leg but left it three inches shorter than it had been before the crash. So the doctors shortened his right leg. Bob was now 5'9". And his right knee was three inches higher than his left.
He turned to coaching. He led ragtag teams of underprivileged kids to Long Beach Parks Department championships in baseball, basketball, football and track, and in 1972 he married his high school sweetheart, Susie Sear. Soon Bob had two boys of his own to coach.
In 1979 the Garcias moved to pristine Irvine, Calif. Aron, their second son, grew up fast. By the time he was 10 he had a mitt-popping fastball. A three-sport grade school star, he reserved his real love for baseball. While other kids sat in front of the TV watching Masters of the Universe, Aron practiced in the yard with his dad, refining his graceful pitching motion, mastering a breaking ball. He found that if he held the ball along the seams and snapped his wrist, he could make the pitch dive.
Last summer, as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer, Aron averaged 14 strikeouts per six-inning game. A powerful switch-hitter, he batted .492. In postseason all-star competition he was outrageous. He hit better than .600 and threw six straight shutouts, allowing one earned run in 60 innings. Irvine fans called him Smoke. In a one-hitter against the Utah All-Stars, relying on what catcher Ryan Jones calls his "powering fastball," he fanned 16 batters in six innings. In the game that won the Irvine All-Stars a trip to the Little League World Series, Aron went 4 for 5 with two singles, a double and a triple, stole two bases—and threw a two-hitter.
"Nice game," said Irvine manager Bob Garcia, grabbing an armful of Smoke.
"Thanks, Coach," Smoke said to Gunner.
Eleven months of the year Williamsport, Pa., is a charming and quiet town of 33,000 people. But each August, when it hosts the Little League World Series, it swarms with players, coaches, fans, umps, mascots, baseball dignitaries, Hall of Famers, TV crews and reporters. Last year most of the above descended on Aron.
"We always made a point not to treat him as a star, and now everybody's asking him how it feels to be the big star," Bob says. "I tried to keep him away from a lot of the hoopla, but after we won our first game, we were just deluged with reporters."
Glib, flashy, a barrio kid who made good, a war hero now known for burning the symmetrical streets of Irvine in a Porsche 911SC Targa, Bob took the heat off his players by entertaining the media himself. His act did not sit well with some Irvine parents. "Bob Garcia and Aron Garcia are not this whole team," said Donna Greinke, whose son Chris was Irvine's brilliant No. 2 pitcher. "Everything you hear is Garcia, but it took a whole team to get to Williamsport."
"Bob has always been the black sheep, everywhere he coached," Susie Garcia says. "His teams were too aggressive for some people, and so was he."
Chris Greinke was shutting out Indiana in the U.S. championship game—the winner would play Taiwan in the final—until he was hit by a pitch in the second inning and had to leave the game. Catcher Jones took the mound and finished up an 8-1 win. Aron slugged a three-run homer.
"Yeah, gentlemen! Beautiful!" said assistant coach Gregg Colbert. "Bring on Taiwan."
The Californians' slogan was, Catch the wave, and they certainly caught the fans' fancy. Coming into the World Series, they had outscored their last 10 opponents 88-3. They made a shambles of their Williamsport barracks, juking to their theme song, La Bamba. They boasted a melting-pot lineup that included a Filipino-American outfielder and a Vietnamese-American third baseman, but their Mexican-American pitcher, a spirited seventh-grader with a grin that turned ponytails at Vista Verde School, was the star of the show. When the team made an impromptu La Bamba video, Aron strummed the air-guitar solo.
Smoke signaled hope to U.S. Little League fans. Taiwan, Japan and Korea had owned this tournament for two decades—16 of the last 20 Little League champions were Far East teams. "Now, for the first time in years, the American team has a real chance to win," ABC's Palmer told the TV audience, "and that chance rides with Aron Garcia." In addition to comparing Aron's arm to his own, Palmer compared the boy's hitting to Eddie Murray's. "He is a dominating player," Palmer said. Aron signed autographs—"Smoke #22"—and gave reporters big league quotes like, "I'm just happy to be here" and "I'll try to stay within myself." He seemed the very model of the cool California kid, but his dad saw signs of strain.
"Toward the end he started questioning himself," Bob says. "That's when I knew we had a problem. He'd never done that before. He said, 'Dad, I'm really nervous.' He couldn't sleep. He got the flu. The pressure got to him."
It had rained all week in Williamsport, but the day of the final was nothing but blue sky, balloons, red-white-and-blue bunting, TV cameras and celebs. The Phillie Phanatic threw to Irvine's catcher. Peter Ueberroth, who lives a long fly ball from Irvine, addressed the crowd. Former Little Leaguer Tom Seaver threw out the first ball. La Bamba rang from the public-address system. Palmer greeted 35,000 fans in the stands and "countless millions," as he said, watching at home.
Warming up with assistant coach Colbert, his pitching tutor, Aron was tense. "The warmups weren't too good," Colbert says. "There were too many people around. They kept reaching out, trying to touch him, yelling, 'You can do it!' and 'U-S-A!' I finally told them to leave him alone. 'These kids aren't playing for you,' I said. 'They're playing for themselves and their teammates and their families.' Colbert, 24 and single, thinks of Aron as family. "I don't have any kids yet, and I don't have any brothers, but Aron is like my brother. Before the game, I sat him down and said, 'Look, you've pitched great all year. We've won a lot of games, had some good times. If Taiwan happens to hit you, don't worry about it, because you are the best 12-year-old; pitcher in this country.' "
Aron's first pitch of the Little League World Series was a strike. He missed with a breaking ball, got strike two with another. Then Taiwan's Pang Yu-Long rapped a one-hopper off Irvine third baseman Loc Tran. The next hitter walked. Aron put his hand on his hip. "That means he's frustrated," Bob says.
Aron thought he had No. 3 hitter Wang Chih-Kwou smoked on an 0-2 fastball. Umpire Frank Rizzo disagreed. Aron put his hand on his hip.
"All through the tournament my biggest fear was that he'd get an umpire who didn't call the corners," says Bob. "That's what he got."
Wang walked. Aron's next pitch went to the backstop. A run scored. Aron shuffled his feet. "He's got that look on his face as if he's beaten already," ABC's Al Trautwig told TV viewers.
Aron wild-pitched another run home, and another. He had yet to allow a hit but was down 3-0.
The next batter doubled. The next singled. The next fried out, but centerfielder Geoff Ebdon threw the ball over catcher Jones's head. Aron retired the next two hitters. At the end of one, the score was 5-0.
"Don't try to adjust to the umpire," Bob counseled Aron between innings. "Just throw."
"How come one guy gets a single, and then another guy gets a double down the line?" Aron asked.
"Aron, people have hit you before," Bob told him. "You've got a whole defense out there behind you—just throw the ball over the plate."
Irvine again failed to score, and Aron went to the mound for the bottom of the second. He would not have been surprised, in the middle of this bad dream, to see Freddy Krueger charging the mound with a razor-sharp bat. A Nightmare in Williamsport: Inning Two.
Pang walked. Shih singled. Wang singled. Fu singled, Pang scored. Shih scored on Jones's passed ball, Wang scored on Jones's throwing error. Chu singled. Kuo was safe on Loc Tran's error. Lin grounded out to the pitcher. Cheng singled, Fu scored. Feng singled, Chu scored. Pang homered to right, Lin, Cheng, Feng and Pang scored. Garcia wept. Shih lined out to left. Wang lined out to right. Taiwan 14, U.S.A. 0.
"It's raining runs," Palmer said.
"I've got to get you out of there," Bob told his pitcher.
"O.K., O.K. Gut it out, then. Just play catch."
Bob would be ripped by the Los Angeles Times for letting his son take such punishment, but Irvine's manager had few options. He had three pitchers—Aron, Greinke and Jones—and had used Greinke and Jones in the semifinal. Little League rules prohibit consecutive-game appearances by pitchers in tournament play.
"As a father I wanted him out of there," Bob says. "As a manager, I was in a quandary. I had no one to go to. As a manager in that situation you just say, That's my ace, what can I do?"
Aron walked the first hitter in the third. Then Chu singled. Kuo hit an RBI grounder. Lin homered. After a walk and a groundout, Pang homered for the second time. Aron looked through tears for a sign from his catcher. He had given up two home runs all year; Taiwan had now hit three of them in half an hour.
Shih singled. Wang belted Aron's next pitch 100 feet over the leftfield fence. Bob came to the mound and took the ball. "That's the toughest thing in the world—taking your son off the mound," he says.
He replaced his ace with sore-thumbed second baseman Ryan O'Toole, who would shut out Taiwan the rest of the way. Aron trudged off the field and chucked his glove against the dugout wall—more like Joaquin Andujar than Palmer. He sat on the bench, put his head in his hands and cried. His pitching line in the final: 2⅖ innings, 13 hits, 21 runs, six walks, one strikeout.
ABC left the scene of the disaster in the fifth. The Irvine faithful back home, crowded around three wide-screen televisions at Northwood Pizza, caught the final inning by switching the dish to a satellite that carried the Taiwanese feed, and they heard the play-by-play in Chinese. Taiwan won the Little League World Series 21-1.
After the deluge. Bob says, "We had a lot of tears. Aron said, 'Dad, I let us down.' He felt like he let the whole country down. I told him, "Son, feel proud. You won the national championship. You have to realize that there's one bad day for everyone—there's gonna be a day when Ozzie Smith tries to do his flip and falls. This was your bad day.' "
Irvine's All-Stars moped through an endless flight home, only to find 150 fans waiting at the gate at Los Angeles International Airport, cheering the U.S. champs. That helped dry their tears. The city of Irvine gave them a ticker-tape parade, and because Irvine has few tall buildings, fans lining the streets threw confetti up at the players on a flatbed truck. The All-Stars were guests of honor at a California Angels game at Anaheim Stadium. And, best of all, Sept. 2, 1987 was Irvine Little League Day at Disneyland. The parade route there took the boys down Main Street U.S.A. and dropped them off at Fantasyland.
"Rad!" said Aron.
Thirteen-year-old hearts are resilient. Aron and his dad now revel in the thrills of last year, and chalk the Taiwan game up to a tired arm and the 103-degree fever that kept Aron awake the night before the game. When father and son watch tapes of the Little League World Series, "We tease about it," Bob says. "One time Jim Palmer was talking about Aron being this great athlete—football, baseball, basketball and everything—and Palmer asked him who taught him all that. Aron said he taught himself. I get on him about that."
"Aron really loves his dad," says Susie. "They shared a wonderful adventure last year—after they got back I had to get call-waiting, they were getting so many calls. They were such celebrities."
Aron does seem unscarred by Williamsport. He and his teammates did come home national champs and local heroes, after all. The glorious winning streak of 1987 had ended with a nightmare, but Smoke Garcia still has his Little League World Series cap, his 1987 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS T-shirt, his dad, his mom and—after surgery—his strong right arm.
"His arm was an accident waiting to happen," says orthopedic surgeon Alan Beyer, who rebuilt Aron's elbow in December. "When I got in there, I found chronic stress changes in the growth plate—the result of his repeatedly placing a lot of stress on that part of his arm. That final little toss of a handball was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
Beyer says Aran's elbow injury was similar to one suffered by major leaguer Tommy John in 1974 but easier to fix. John, whose growth plates had long since matured, tore the medial collateral ligament in his elbow. To replace the ligament, sports surgeon Frank Jobe transplanted the palmaris longus tendon from John's right wrist to his left elbow. In Aran's case, the medial collateral ligament was stronger than the growth plate, so the ligament pulled the growth plate off the bone. Beyer, who had a fellowship with Jobe in 1981-82, faced a simpler operation than the one Jobe performed on John. "I exposed the fracture site in Aran's elbow," says Beyer, "cleaned up some of the scarified, sclerosed bone, reattached the piece that had been pulled off, fixed it to its normal site with a screw and closed him up."
Beyer says Aron may actually benefit from his injury. The growth plates in a boy's arm normally fuse when he is 16 or 17. Aran's operation will accelerate the fusion of the growth plate in his elbow; his growth plate will fuse by the time he is 15. Aran's arm, like the rest of him, will grow up fast.
What makes a boy's elbow snap? Conventional wisdom blames the curveball—destroyer of young arms. Bob and pitching coach Colbert take pains to point out that Aron throws a "dropball," not a curve. "Contrary to what Jim Palmer says, Aron does not throw a curve," says Colbert. "He throws a drop—all wrist, straight over the top, with no twist of the arm. It's twisting the arm that causes trouble."
Curve or drop, it makes no difference, according to Beyer. "Everybody says youngsters shouldn't throw curveballs," he says. "I think that's overstating the case. Dr. Jobe has done studies that show exactly what forces are placed on the elbow during the pitching motion. These studies show that a properly thrown curveball puts no more stress on the arm than a well-thrown fastball. The important thing is, How many pitches is a youngster throwing? Last year, with all the extra games, Aron threw more than he was used to, and that placed a lot of stress on his elbow. In a way, he's lucky the accident happened, because in a few months he'll be at least as good as he ever was. Last year his arm was an impending disaster."
At the end of February, Aron met Colbert for his first post-op throwing session. Behind them a bulldozer cleared the infield at Irvine's Orchard Park, laying groundwork for a new baseball season. "I don't want you showing off," Colbert said.
"O.K., O.K.," said Smoke.
They began with slow tosses. Aron felt strong. He was thrilled to be throwing again. Before long he was popping Colbert's mitt with his fastball. Colbert scolded him but couldn't keep from smiling. "The Smoke is back!" he said.
Aron wanted to try his drop. Just a couple, his coach said. The first spun and stayed up, but the second broke straight down, skipped past Colbert and bounded to the parking lot. Aron tipped his cap.
"That's enough," Colbert said, waving Aron deep. Colbert picked up a bat and hit fungoes that Aron glided to meet, snapped from the sky and sent back on one lazy hop.
"How's your arm feel?" Colbert yelled.
Early in April, Aron and the Irvine Senior League Orioles (for kids 13 to 15) played their final preseason game. "Everybody wants him to pitch," Bob says. "His mom even wants him to pitch. Aron says, 'Dad, I wanna pitch, I wanna pitch.' But I know him better than he knows himself. He's not a hundred percent yet. He's got a little hitch in his motion. He doesn't want to follow through, can't quite bring himself to cut loose."
"Right now, when I throw," Aron says, "it doesn't go all straight. My dad says I need to stretch it out. He says I'm just flicking the ball, and if I keep doing that I could ruin my arm worse."
Playing shortstop in a BIG WAVE DAVE'S SURF SHOP T-shirt, Aron ranged into the hole, scooped up a grounder and threw a strike to first—hard enough to make the first baseman wince. Aron turned a diving catch into a double play. One of his smaller teammates had to jump to high-five the 5'9" shortstop. At bat, Aron doubled and soon scored headfirst in a cloud of dust. "Peteys," he calls his headfirst slides (in honor of Pete Rose, of course).
"Aron loves to do his Peteys," says Colbert.
"It's not the fastest way to slide—you're slowing down the whole time you're in the air," Bob tells him. "But it expresses aggressiveness."
Aron's aggressiveness, training and speed came together late in this meaningless game. Leading off first base after a walk, he danced toward second. The batter lifted a fly ball to right. Outfielders converged; when Aron saw that neither of them would catch the ball, he put his head down, rounded second base, cut the inside corner of third and slid—feet first—around the tag at the plate.
"It is a joy to have him on my team," says Orioles manager Bob Jones. "Aron is a smart, mature, totally dedicated athlete. Right now he's dying to pitch, but he won't pitch until I get the green light from all concerned."
Lounging in a folding chair behind the backstop, chewing sunflower seeds between puffs on a cigarette, Bob stretched and smiled. "This is nice," he said. "When I was managing I had to try to see all the kids at once. Now I can just look at one." Bob retired from Little League managing after the Taiwan game. Having given a year to Aron and the All-Stars, he says he wants to devote more time this year to his older son, a 16-year-old sophomore who plays football and baseball for Irvine High. Bob's retirement from coaching has not kept him away from the action—he shouts advice as often as he did when he was the All-Stars' manager.
"Garcia!" he yelled to his younger son. "Can't you bring a clean shirt?" Aron, whose shirt was clean until he Peteyed across the plate, just smiled.
Between innings, Bob reflected on the motorcycle accident that wrecked his dreams of playing big league ball. "I never got to play ball the way I wanted to," he said. "The doctors said I'd never walk. Well, they were wrong. Now I play golf, I play softball, and one of these days I'm going to go to the ballpark and hear over the loudspeaker, 'Now batting, Aron Garcia.' That's all I want. I want to hear that name."
After the practice game, Aron showed a friend the three-inch raspberry-colored scar on the inside of his elbow. "My arm feels pretty good," he said. "Shortstop is O.K., but I want to pitch. When you pitch, everything circles around you. Everything that happens, you're included. I'm throwing hard. I've been working out with my dad, working out with Gregg [Colbert] a lot, and pretty soon they're going to let me pitch."
How's your fastball?
He grinned. "Maybe faster."
Maybe, says physical therapist Ken Yoshino, but biomechanically unsound nonetheless. "He was opening up too soon, dragging his elbow," Yoshino says. "If he had kept throwing that way, he would have hurt his arm again."
Yoshino took over Aron's rehabilitation early this year, scrapped Colbert's teachings and substituted a program called Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, which includes weightlifting, football tossing and "mirror throwing"—watching oneself fire rolled-up socks at a mirror. A sports medicine specialist who has advised the Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates, Yoshino refrains from criticizing Colbert but says, "A lot of things young pitchers are being taught have been shown—by high-speed cinematography and current knowledge—to be wrong."
The challenge Aron's parents, friends, coaches and advisers face now, says Yoshino, is keeping the Comeback Kid off the mound without squelching his spirit. "We have all talked to him about it," says Yoshino. "He's very aggressive, and he wants to pitch, but it would be crazy for him to pitch now. I've told him that many pitchers who make it to the Show were position players when they were kids. They didn't wear down their arms. But Aron's like all teenage kids. He wants to live now."
"He's not a patient kid," Bob says. "You ask him if he'd rather win a Senior League game now or pitch in the pros someday, and he says he'd rather win the Senior League game."
"He teases me," says Susie. "He'll wave and say, 'Bye, Mom, I'm pitching today.' "
This fall Aron will work out with Yoshino and Rangers pitching coach Tom House. Yoshino says he should not pitch from a mound until next year. "Aron has a chance to be a professional ballplayer," Yoshino says. "How far he goes depends on how disciplined he can be now."
On April 4, Aron and the Orioles took the field for their first regular-season game of '88. His parents arrived separately—Bob in his smoke-black Porsche, Susie in a black Mercedes. Their on-again, off-again separation is on again. The two boys live with their mother. Susie said the split was brought on in part by the pressure of Bob's high-speed efforts to play banker, dad, husband and coach all at once.
"This has been going on for a long time," she said. "Bob would move out, move back in—but he'd always be here when the season started. Aron has adjusted. He loves his dad, and I know he loves me. Sometimes after Bob and I talked about getting back together, I'd say to Aron, 'I have a date with your dad,' and he'd laugh. This is a nice time of year for them—during the season, during games. That's their time together."
Bob is already looking to get back into coaching—perhaps at Irvine High, where Aron will be a freshman in the fall of '89. Now enjoying a break from the banking business—he recently left his post at Executive Savings and Loan—Bob spends weekends and game days, at the very least, with his boys. He and Aron huddled before the Orioles' first game, discussing the Athletics' pitcher, a sidewheeling lefty named Nate Petersen. "It might be tough picking up the ball on him," Bob said. Since midseason of last year, Aron has batted lefthanded against all comers, but his dad worried that Petersen might be rough on lefties. "If he gives you trouble," Bob said, "we'll think about turning you around."
Susie left her place with the moms in the bleachers, went to the dugout and touched her son's shoulder. "We don't talk strategy," she reported a few moments later. "I just asked him to get a hit for me."
The shortstop of the moment wore Ozzie Smith's No. 1 on his back. Smith is his shortstop hero. When Aron pitches, his idol is anyone who throws hard.
In his first at bat he popped up. In the bottom of the first he dropped a line drive. He found the ball and had enough arm to throw the runner out, but the other team was not impressed. "Nice catch, Garcia," yelled an A's infielder.
In the third, frozen by a Petersen curve, Aron struck out, and then one-hopped his helmet off the dugout fence. In the fourth, batting righthanded at Bob's suggestion, he walked.
Leading off the sixth, still looking for his first Senior League hit, Aron batted lefty against a righthanded reliever. He worked the count to 2-1. "Hitter's count," Bob said.
Aron knocked the next pitch over the centerfielder's head. His teen-idol grin spread as he circled the bases, and widened as he crossed the plate. "Not bad," Bob said. "A homer on Opening Day."
By midseason, Aron was hitting .372, with two more homers, a triple and seven doubles in 43 at bats. He was getting walked with frustrating regularity. Though dying to pitch, he was playing a solid shortstop, warming up the team's other pitchers and seldom complaining. Whenever Yoshino promises he can pitch again next year, 1989 seems to Aron like 1999.
Kicking off his cleats in his bedroom after a recent win in which he homered, Aron re-enacted his swing. "Low fastball, right where I wanted it," he said. "Boom!" His room is a whirl of baseballs, gloves, trophies, pennants, Little League World Series memorabilia and pictures of his heroes.
"There's Ozzie," he says, pointing to an action shot of the Cardinals' shortstop. "And that Astros pennant is for Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott."
Over his unmade bed—almost life-sized, bearing down on his pillow—is a poster of a Porsche. "Gonna get one of those when I sign my first pro contract," says Aron. Then he grins. He is 13, his team is in first place and his strong right arm is almost as good as new.