ARLINGTON, Texas - Seattle Mariner closer Norm Charlton, expected to undergo elbow-tendon replacement surgery this week, likely will not be back until next season's All-Star break.
But a decade ago his chances of even pitching effectively again would not be nearly as good as they are today.
The diagnosis for Charlton, who had just come off the disabled list Thursday, is not complete. He flew back to Seattle yesterday and was to be examined this morning by team surgeon Larry Pedegana.
Trainer Rick Griffin, however, said it appears Charlton tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow during his ninth-inning outing here Saturday night.
Griffin said if the diagnosis is confirmed, the 30-year-old Charlton will have surgery Thursday in Los Angeles by noted surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe. The operation will be similar to that performed first on former pitcher Tommy John.
"If everything goes well, Norm could be throwing off the mound in March or April," Griffin said.
"They project it takes a guy nine months to a year to come back."
Jobe first performed the then-experimental surgery in 1974 on John. It requires taking a tendon from his wrist and using it to replace the damaged elbow ligament. Holes are drilled into the bone to attach the tendon.
It worked for John. He went on to pitch nearly 2,000 more innings and earn 124 of his 255 career victories.
"Six or eight guys I can think of have come back to pitch," Griffin said.
Among them are Joe Sambito, former Mariner Matt Young and Mariner reliever Dwayne Henry. Mariner farmhard Kerry Woodson had the surgery six weeks ago.
"I was the third one to have it, in 1982 (after John and Sambito)," Henry said. "He (Jobe) took the tendon out of my wrist and took out the ulnar nerve, then reconstructed the elbow."
Henry was out from July 1982 until 1984 spring training. He has appeared in 235 big-league games since.
"It (surgery) has gotten better over the years. Some have gotten back in nine months," Henry added. "Most of the guys since I've had it have come back. They've recovered real quick."
One who didn't was Sambito. He had surgery the same year as Henry. But his comeback lasted just 47 innings in 1984; then Sambito was out of baseball.
"We were on the same program in '83," Henry said of the former Houston Astro. "He rushed it. He couldn't come back all the way."
Charlton's surgery would not involve the ulnar nerve, just the tendon replacement. Jobe also likely will deal with Charlton's bone spurs, which have caused chronic problems.
"There's a chance the bone spurs might have broken it (ligament) off," Griffin said. "They have time to take a good look at the elbow. It's as good a time as any (to remove the spurs)."
He said one of the fastest recoveries was Matt Young's. He missed all of the 1988 season after the surgery but came back in June 1989 and pitched effectively for the Oakland A's.
Still, pitchers who undergo the surgery must deal with the possibility that they may never pitch again.
"I had that fear," Henry said. "I didn't know how it (arm) would respond because he (Jobe) said it could tear at any time. The fear I had was just throwing breaking balls.
"I think Norm will be OK because it's not the nerve."
Manager Lou Piniella said losing Charlton "was hard on me," mostly on a personal level.
"I've been with the guy for four years," he said. "He helped me win a world championship in 1990. He was doing the job again here. You get attached to guys who are as competitive as he is."
"In the short time he was here, he very quietly established himself as a team leader. The players appreciate his grit, his competitive spirit and his desire to win."
Whenever Charlton returns, the Mariners are obligated to pay his $2.3 million salary next season, which will be Charlton's option year.
Piniella said that if Charlton is sidelined next season, finding a replacement "is something we have to look at.
"But that's next year. It's something we'll look at over the winter. Right now, I'm concerned about how well we can play."