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A Victim of Careless Gardening, Bob Ojeda Is Back in the Ball Game with the Finger He Nearly Cut Off

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Pitcher Bobby Ojeda had helped the New York Mets win one World Series, in 1986, and he was looking forward to helping them do it again. But on Sept. 21, 1988, as the Mets were on the verge of clinching the National League’s Eastern Division title, the 31-year-old left-hander virtually severed the tip of the middle finger of his pitching hand while trimming a hedge in the yard of his Long Island home.

Ojeda had just come back from another career-threatening injury. After winning 18 games in 1986, he was sidelined following elbow surgery for most of the 1987 season. In 1988 he regained control of his arsenal of teasing sinkers and curveballs. Then, in one brief moment of inattention, all that he had recovered seemed lost. But microsurgery to reattach the fingertip succeeded, and Ojeda fought off pain and depression to rehabilitate himself once again. Now, as Opening Day approaches, Ojeda is back on the mound, ready to reclaim his place in one of the best starting rotations in baseball. At the Mets training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Ojeda discussed the accident and his comeback with reporter Mary Huzinec.

People say to me, “What were you doing trimming your hedges?” But you don’t stop living just because you’re a baseball player. I have a gardener take care of the big things, but I still like to roll up my sleeves and work. I’m not an inside-the-house person.

I had been thinking about trimming these hedges by the house that were getting out of control. That morning around 10, I hooked up my electric clippers and started in, holding the trigger grip with my right hand and the guide handle with my left. I hadn’t been going a minute when I moved my left hand forward to push back some of the hedges. I guess I wasn’t paying attention. The blades caught a branch, then somehow pulled in my middle finger. It happened so fast. People say a cut like that doesn’t hurt because you go into shock. Let me tell you, it hurt like hell

I looked down and didn’t see the top of my finger. It was just flopped over backwards at the first joint, hanging by a thin layer of skin. I tried to put it back in place and hold it there. Blood was spurting all over—like in one of those horror movies. I just yelled to my wife, Ellen, “Baby, I’m in trouble! Baby, I’m in trouble!”

El came flying out of the house barefoot, with no idea what was going on. She had grabbed the car keys on her way out, and she guided me to the car. She was upset, in no condition to drive. She drove on the wrong side of the road. She drove through red lights. I tried to joke around. I said, “Honey, you’re going to kill me before I get to the hospital.” And all the while I couldn’t help but think. “Why didn’t I stay in bed an extra hour?”

I was very much aware that this had happened to the middle finger of my pitching hand. I kept thinking that I was supposed to start the following Saturday against the Cardinals and I wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t dare think beyond that. I was a mess.

At the first hospital, St. Francis in Roslyn, Long Island, my finger was bandaged while Ellen called the Mets’ doctors. Then I was rushed by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, where Dr. Richard Eaton and Dr. James Parkes and their team of specialists were waiting.

The operation took about 6½ hours. Knowing what I do for a living, Dr. Eaton gave me as much feeling in the finger as he could, painstakingly reconnecting all the tiny blood vessels, nerves and muscle fibers. He reattached the fingertip at a 10-degree angle to help me grip the ball better. If it would have been my right hand, he could have taken off the whole finger for all I care.

The first 48 hours after the operation were critical for the survival of the reattached fingertip. A nurse came in every hour, day and night, to poke the finger to see if it was still pink and healthy. She kept saying, “Looks good.” A cast had been applied immediately following the operation to protect my finger and immobilize my wrist.

I stayed in the hospital five days. Overall, I think I received about 1,000 letters and cards. I read every single one of them, swear to God. Many were from people who work with their hands. Some people wrote to tell me about accidents they had had. The whole New York Philharmonic Orchestra autographed a card. Violinist Itzhak Perlman wrote me a great encouraging letter.

All these good wishes got me through, because I was really depressed. I kept having flashbacks, feeling the blades slicing my finger again. Sometimes I still get flashbacks. It gives me the creeps. But no matter how depressed I was, I felt I owed it to everyone to try to come back.

When I got home, I found that our gardener, Andy Smith, had removed all of the hedges—a whole dump truck full. He felt so terrible about the accident that he just took out the whole mess.

By then the play-offs were in gear. I insisted on showing up at the games against the Dodgers just to sit on the bench. This was by far the most difficult thing I ever had to do in sports. I felt so helpless. If I had gone out there and got beat up, I could have lived with it more easily than having to sit and watch the Mets lose.

And then there was the strain of everyday living. When I had had my elbow surgery, I learned how to do some things right-handed—shave, brush my teeth. But I couldn’t have made it through this without Ellen. She helped me get dressed, feed myself and shower. When I went to the stadium during the play-offs, I couldn’t even button my uniform pants. I had to ask the guys in the clubhouse to do it for me.

I was glad when the cast was removed after four weeks, because my finger had started to heal inside and the pressure hurt. During the surgery, pins had been inserted to keep the bone still while the finger healed. About seven weeks later, the pins were removed and I started rehabilitation. Three or four times a day, I did resistance exercises, spreading my fingers and pressing them together. All day long I kept squeezing a ball of putty and stretching it like tally to build up my strength.

I could tell the difference between hot and cold, but the finger felt like it was asleep. I had begun gently tossing a tennis ball to get the feel of throwing again. On Nov. 18, I went to Shea Stadium to throw a baseball for the first time in public since my accident. I told the media my finger felt fine. I haven’t admitted it until now, but I lied. My finger killed me, but I just had to say it felt okay. It was either that or quit.

Ellen and I then headed to Visalia, Calif., my hometown, where I spend every off-season. It was there I started the process of psyching myself up. I’m glad Dr. Eaton never gave me any odds or discouraged me about my chances of pitching again, because I wouldn’t have listened to him. I started to throw for 10 minutes every day, about 50 feet, but not hard. Around the first of January, I started throwing off the mound to my dad. I had been running three miles every other night, trying to ignore the intense throbbing in the finger. Now I stepped up to three miles every night.

It was good for me to see my son and two daughters from my first marriage, who live in Visalia. They acted like nothing had changed. As far as they were concerned, it was still, “Let’s jump on Dad!”

I can’t recall any turning point, but eventually I started to feel more encouraged. The nerves in my finger started to desensitize and a callus formed, so throwing didn’t hurt so much. Maybe I was just talking myself into it. I’m very fortunate-that I was raised to be an optimist. Anyway, Ellen would never have let me quit. I would have been too miserable to live with.

In late January, Ellen and I decided to head down early to spring training in Port St. Lucie, Fla., so that I could have extra time to train. After a couple weeks down there, it really helped my frame of mind when Mets catchers Gary Carter and Barry Lyons caught me and said that they couldn’t tell any difference in my pitches. At first I thought my fastball and my sinker would be affected because I rely on my middle finger to make those pitches work, but now I don’t think I’ll have to change my delivery at all. I’ve got about 90 percent of the feeling back, but pitching isn’t a fingertip feeling. It comes from your whole hand. It has really helped me knowing that [manager] Davey Johnson has said all along that I’m still one of his five starters. I can’t wait for the season to begin.

I’m glad I never thought, “Why me?” I never cried in my beer. I’ve lived a great life and I’m happy at 31. You’ve got to be happy with whatever you get dealt in life and make it work.

This whole ordeal has made me realize how much I really love what I do for a living. I had always tried to downplay it. I’m also not going to change the way I live. I’ll still ride dirt bikes and drive fast cars. I’ll still take out my own garbage and I’ll still work in the yard. But I’ll certainly be more careful. And I’m positive I’ll never use electric hedge clippers again.