FLOWERY BRANCH — James Mills was ecstatic when he heard the pop of the catcher’s mit on the other end of his first pitch during Flowery Branch High’s intrasquad scrimmage this year.
The pitch, which registered in the low 80s on the radar gun, was as fast as he’d thrown all season in 2009 as a junior.
Right then, he couldn’t have imagined that his high school career was done before his senior season had a chance to get off the ground.
After a couple more pitches to the first hitter, Mills was ahead in the count and feeling like he was on top of his game. Then on the fourth pitch, he wizzed a fastball past the batter that was outside the plate for ball two.
Still, he had no signs pointing to the end of his high school career.
However, on the fifth pitch he felt a sharp pain in the arm. That was followed by a loose feeling and a popping sound.
“It just felt mushy,” Mills said.
From that initial jolt of not knowing what was going on, he asked Falcons coach Jimmy Lawler and pitching coach David Hawkins to come out to the mound. In turn, they asked their anticipated senior ace to throw a practice pitch to see how it felt.
When the sixth and final pitch from Mills flew over the catcher’s head, Mills was immediately pulled from the game.
At first, the camp around Mills hoped that it was just a bit of shoulder weakness that could be worked through with physical therapy and time away from the mound. Two weeks later, there was no clear sign of progress, so Mills and his family decided to visit Dr. Amy Borrow with the Georgia Sports Orthopedic Specialists in Gainesville for a more definitive answer.
“We went to the doctor really expecting that there wasn’t anything wrong,” said James’ father, Mickey Mills.
It wasn’t the first time Mills experienced discomfort in his right arm. In 2009, while playing American Legion ball with the Gainesville A’s, he was hampered with arm pain during the state tournament and still managed to win his final game of the regular season 1-0 against Conyers.
Hoping the injury was nothing serious and looking to lock up a college scholarship — he was merely verbally committed to
Young Harris College at that point — Mills went straight for the MRI.
The MRI’s results yielded a worst case scenario.
Mills suffered what is medically diagnosed as an ulnar collateral ligament tear; an elbow injury which is more commonly experienced by baseball players due to insufficient strength in the shoulder. The remedy is a surgical procedure named after a former major league pitcher — Tommy John Surgery.
The aforementioned medical procedure calls for a 9-12 month rehabilitation period once surgery is complete. During a Tommy John procedure, a new piece of ligament, which in Mills’ case was harvested from just above his wrist, is weaved in a figure-eight pattern to reconnect the new ligament through tunnels that are created from the ulna and humerus bone.
Mills found out the test results while he was at practice on Feb. 17. His mother, Lisa Mills, came to the field to meet with her son and coaches to discuss options.
“It’s really tough to tell a kid that he’s going to have to miss his senior year playing baseball,” Lawler said. “I told him there’s a couple directions he could go.
“He could either let it bring him down, or he could have the surgery and continue to get stronger.”
With a chance to play college baseball hanging in the balance, Mills knew surgery was his best long-term option.
“I was pretty emotional when I found out I was going to have to have the Tommy John Surgery,” Mills said. “I remember I didn’t want to have to go to school the next day.”
Mills had the two-hour procedure performed on Feb. 25 at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, just eight days after sustaining the injury. While he was coming to grips with the fact that he wouldn’t be able to play his senior season with the Falcons, he knew it was going to take a proactive approached to locking down a college scholarship to pitch for Young Harris.
Mills, who went 6-2 with a 3.93 ERA as a junior, had some tense moments waiting to hear from Young Harris coach Rick Robinson. His father called and e-mailed at a time when the Mountain Lions were on a road trip, thus initially received no reply.
Then, while Mills was sitting on the bench during a game, his phone rang. Robinson was on the other end.
He took the call outside the dugout and received the good news that he’d still be going to Young Harris on scholarship in the fall.
“He signed with Young Harris on April 30,” his father said.
Still, there’s no baseball for Mills until he completes an extensive rehabilitation to strengthen his shoulder and newly-constructed elbow. The good news is that after Tommy John surgery, 85 percent of pitchers return throwing just as hard or even faster than before surgery. The main reason is the rehabilitation and rest that the extended hiatus from the game provides.
Mills won’t be able to play baseball in the fall when he enrolls at the now four-year Young Harris because he’ll still be rehabbing.
But he expects to return for the spring season.
The first stage of rehab was working with stretch bands to build strength, which he did twice a week at Gwinnett Sports Rehabilitation. Now, he’s able to toss the ball up to 30 feet after fielding ground balls. He can also hit off a tee and swings 30 times each session to regain his form at the plate.
After such a draining ordeal, Mills is now just counting down the days until he can return to the field and play pain free.
“Going through this has made James appreciate baseball more,” Mickey Mills said. “He saw the game from an entirely new perspective this season.”