In 1974, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers knew something was wrong with his arm. He didn’t know exactly what, but when he went to a doctor, it was determined that he would need Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction. The pitcher’s name was Tommy John. From that moment forward, the surgical procedure designed to reconstruct a pitcher’s arm would be known by his name.
It’s a procedure thousands of athletes have undergone since Tommy John’s experiment proved to be successful. Today it is not uncommon to come across a team with a player who has been through the process. The Washington Nationals have Stephen Strasburg, the St. Louis Cardinals have Adam Wainwright, and the Linfield Wildcats have Robert Vaughn.
When asked what his biggest obstacle has been during his time at Linfield, the fifth-year senior immediately responded, “Tommy John,” with no sense of hesitation or deliberation. Vaughn knew something was wrong during the first start of his sophomore year in a preseason game, when he felt soreness in the elbow of his throwing arm. Little did he know he was about to embark on the most testing journey of his athletic career, and would not return to the mound until midway through his junior season.
“It is a serious injury to come back from, mainly because of the length of time it takes to recover,” Vaughn said about his experience coming back after the procedure.
From the first time he toed the rubber at Linfield, Vaughn was slated to be a key pitcher and dominant overall player for the Wildcats. “He had a great freshman year and was penciled in as the top starter going into his sophomore year,” Wildcats coach Scott Brosius explained.
While his hope of being Linfield’s ace did not come true immediately, Vaughn worked hard to get his arm back to full strength so he could contribute to the team in any way he could. “He has done everything we have asked of him and has filled both a starting as well as a relief role,” Brosius added.
Vaughn is not the first Wildcat to make a comeback after missing over a year due to injury. His work ethic did not develop overnight and it was another player in the program who motivated him to give it his all and never give up. “Kelson (Brown) was probably the player I looked up to most,” Vaughn said. “He went from a J.V. player to varsity to getting drafted, which really motivated me.”
Recovering from injury is not the only thing Vaughn and Brown have in common.
The other quality they share? Professional talent.
After being named a NCAA Division III All-American in 2010, Brown was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and is currently playing in their minor league system.
“What I remember about Robert’s work ethic is that he never shies away from a challenge,” Brown said. Working with Vaughn helped him become a better player, too. “Through working with him, I learned how to compete in the batter’s box and handle deceptive pitching.”
Vaughn had hopes of being drafted after the 2011 season, but recurring arm problems forced him to miss more time. “Robert is dominant when his arm is healthy,” says Brosius. “He has an above-average fastball that touches 90 with the ability to get righties and lefties out.”
Those skills, combined with a rigorous work ethic, reveal the makings of a professional prospect. As far as Vaughn is concerned, the sky is the limit. “I’ve always wanted to play professional baseball,” he said with a grin. “At this point, I’m not quite at full strength yet, but I’m getting there.”
Brown has faith in his former teammate’s ability to make it in the pro ranks. “I have always told Robert he can be anything he wants after college. He has the talent to play at the next level.”
As far as Vaughn’s expectations for the Wildcats this year, he hopes for a national championship. “Going to the World Series all four years was my expectation, so not making it would be a huge disappointment,” Vaughn said. Through his leadership, strong work ethic and determination to be the best, Vaughn has the makeup of the key player every championship-contending team needs. Once his arm fully recovers, he will be a valuable asset for the ‘Cats, and perhaps for a professional team one day in the near future.
-- Evan O'Kelly '13