CHICAGO — Last year, Dr. Preston Wolin watched a young pitcher toss 134 pitches in a high school game with his team ahead by eight runs.
One hurler who "was definitely overused in the [Illinois High School Association] playoffs" walked into Preston's office at Weiss Memorial Hospital with a significant shoulder injury that required surgery after just a few innings of summer baseball, he said.
"Over the past number of years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of injuries to throwing athletes, particularly pitchers. And the two most common ones are the elbow or the shoulder," said Wolin adding the most publicized is an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament, which can require Tommy John surgery in which a tendon is relocated from another part of the body to the arm.
"That’s a potential career-ending type injury especially for a young man and sometimes young women, who have participated in fast-pitch softball. That’s an injury that if they want to continue pitching, you can’t really pitch with it" and the rehab usually takes 12 to 18 months, Wolin said.
As a pitching coach for Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie and the director of sports medicine at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss, 4646 N. Marine Drive, he's seen abuse of young arms on the field and, in his office, the damage it causes.
Seeing both sides of the issue led him to lead the way in enacting a pitch count limit for teenagers in the IHSA, an idea he's discussed for the last three to four years, said Wolin, who's served on the sports medicine committee of the IHSA for about 25 years.
"We talked about it in our committee and we did have some discussions with high school coaches at that time and originally the idea was that we might have a pitch count limit, but we wanted to start out by having an advisory — basically information about pitch counts, limits and so forth," he said.
"But now, I think we're at a point where the discussion has moved beyond that, in part, because of our feeling that the problem continues. The other part is there is a national movement that’s involved with this," he said.
Earlier this month, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced each state will have to create a pitch-count policy before the start of the 2017 season. The organization creates the rule books for 16 high school sports across the U.S., according to the Tribune.
While a few states already have enacted such rules, the IHSA has only limited "pitchers to seven innings a day only in postseason games," but plans to craft stronger regulation is in the works, the Tribune reports.
Wolin hopes to limit pitchers to 105 pitches with a four-day rest in between, but sees a problem with implementation considering a lot of players play for multiple teams. With travel baseball and IHSA baseball, players can easily play about five to six games a week, he said.
"If a young man throws for his travel team, he may use up those pitches. Then he goes to the high school coach who wants to say, 'OK you’re starting today,' and that pitcher may or may not tell the coach. It’s also true the other way around," Wolin said.
While the IHSA has no jurisdiction over travel baseball, USA Baseball, the national governing body for amateur baseball, is discussing implementing a pitch-count policy with a number of travel organizations.
In the meantime, an IHSA policy would help set the tone, he said.
"I think it would help raise the awareness of parents and players to the extent that if a travel ball coach wants them to throw those extra amount of pitches, they would feel more empowered to say, 'They only allow me to throw this many pitches in a high school game. Why are you asking me to pitch this many games in travel ball?'" Wolin said.
"It makes it so there’s a little more pressure on the travel ball coach. I do think there’s a number of these travel ball coaches who do have the best interest of their players in mind. If they know about these rules they’re going to be mindful of them ... I look at it as the beginning of a dialog about this across baseball in the state," he said.
But the idea has received pushback for coaches that say a pitch count is arbitrary, that it should be a coach's decision or that older pitchers' arms can tolerate more than younger arms, Wolin said.
Paul Belo, the baseball coaches association president, told the Tribune he questioned how the rule would be enforced and what punishment would be for breaking it. Would it be an honor system or will there be a central database?
Those answers may come at a meeting with IHSA and the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association on Aug. 31, where the policy is on the agenda, Wolin said.
"I think that baseball like all sports is a community, it certainly is a community at the high school level... In a lot of ways we're all colleagues and we work together," he said.
"If we make it safer across the board then I think its going to be more attractive for people to come in the community and stay. The players of today eventually become the coaches of tomorrow or they become the parents of tomorrow. That’s the way baseball evolves."
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