Orthopedic Surgeons Dissect the Medical Logic Behind ‘Rookie of the Year’

Orthopedic Surgeons Dissect the Medical Logic Behind ‘Rookie of the Year’

A slip on a baseball. That’s all it took to transform unathletic pre-teen Henry Rowengartner into a wunderkind pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in the 1993 family film Rookie of the Year. According to the doctor in the movie, when Henry’s broken arm healed, his “tendons fused with humerus.” Consequently, Henry’s arm was so tight that he could suddenly throw a baseball faster — and more accurately — than any other human being on the planet, including all of those who play baseball for a living.

Before you go taking a hammer to your humerus, though, is it even remotely possible that an injury could increase the velocity with which you can launch a ball through the air? Can bones heal the way Henry’s physician describes in the film? And could a 12-year-old — freak accident or no freak accident — actually hit 103 miles per hour on a radar gun, which is about 10 miles per hour faster than the average MLB pitch travels?

Who better to ask than a trio of orthopedic surgeons, one of whom cited Rookie of the Year as their favorite movie growing up?

How do you feel about Rookie of the Year?

Dr. Selene Parekh, orthopaedic surgeon and co-owner of The Fantasy Doctors: It’s highly entertaining, but take it for its Hollywood value — that’s it.

Dustin Schuett DO, orthopaedic surgeon and satirist: I loved it growing up. As an unathletic kid, I loved the idea that an injury could suddenly bring me to the pros. I was convinced that, somehow, if I got injured just right, I could become the quarterback for the Packers. 

Nancy Yen Shipley MD, orthopaedic surgeon and host of The 6% with NancyMD podcast: It’s a really entertaining premise, but the movie isn’t based on how the musculo-skeletal system actually works. 

Do you have any issues with how Henry breaks his arm?

Schuett: The end of the elbow is a common area for a kid to get a fracture, but usually they fall from monkey bars. Him just slipping on a baseball and landing on his arm is unlikely to break anything. Plus, the gigantic cast he gets is ridiculous. They used to have casts like that back in the 1940s, but I don’t think anyone has been put into such a cast in the past 60 or 70 years. 

What would really happen if Henry’s tendons fused with his humerus?

Schuett: Everything that doctor says is ridiculous. If the tendons scar into bone, it doesn’t make things looser, it makes it tighter and harder to move everything. Henry would just lose motion. 

Shipley: There wasn’t a lot of truth to what that doctor says. Usually, when you tear a ligament, it heals too loose. It can heal too tight, but when it does, the arm loses range of motion, it doesn’t gain power.

Parekh: That doctor was fully full of shit. I was laughing so hard when he was describing the injury. The idea that, after the injury, it would scar into the humerus — which is your upper arm bone — and that it could make you tighter and throw faster, is horseshit. 

Can an injury really improve someone’s game?

Parekh: No. A lot of people think if you have Tommy John surgery — where you reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament — you can make the elbow stronger, but it doesn’t make an elbow stronger if you don’t need it. 

Schuett: There are players who have had better seasons after an injury, but it’s not the injury that did it — it’s because they’ve done so much training to overcome the injury. 

Shipley: Could an injury make you better at a sport? I’d generally say the answer is “no.” And I only say “generally” because we don’t speak in absolutes in medicine.

Could a 12-year-old ever throw a baseball 103 miles per hour?

Shipley: That’d be hard to believe.

Parekh: It’s not possible. The muscles aren’t big enough to create that kind of force. 

Schuett: That’s all ridiculous Hollywood stuff. With the injury they’re describing, he’d have a hard time even bending his arm into a pitching motion, much less have the force to throw it more than 100 miles per hour.

At the end of the movie, Henry loses his fastball-throwing abilities by slipping on another baseball. How credible is this?

Schuett: An injury can definitely impair performance. And sometimes a new injury can tear scar tissue in a previously injured area. So, maybe it’s possible.

Shipley: That’s very nonsensical. We don’t typically see injuries leading to an earlier injury reverting back to normal. Unlike math or grammar, in which a double negative cancels itself out, orthopaedics just doesn’t work that way.

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