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January 13, 2014

Blair on the way back

Former Falcon, now a Cubs minor leaguer, recovering from Tommy John surgery

After being selected in the 20th round by the Chicago Cubs, Zak Blair was off to a blazing hot start to his professional baseball career, playing for the Cubs rookie ball team in Arizona.

Blair was leading the league in hitting when he was long tossing before a game in the first week of July.

On the last toss of that session, he felt something in his arm.

“I think was July 4 or 5 and I was long tossing in Arizona and it was on my last throw and the best way I could describe the feeling was if you were holding a rubber band between your fingers then you flick it, I felt that twing and I was like, ‘man, what was that?’” the Jefferson and Mercyhurst graduate recalled. “I could throw, I played that day. I remember during the game, I was playing second base and I turned a double play and it was one of the worst pains I’ve ever had.

“I knew something wasn’t right.”

Given the cutthroat nature of the minor-league baseball system and the toughness of Blair, he stayed quiet and tried to play through the pain.

“It’s just my nature, I didn’t say anything to anyone, I was thinking, ‘I’m trying to move up levels and leading the league in hitting, this can’t happen,’” he said. “But it did. I played for about a month. I remember trying to hold a bat straight out with my right arm and it hurt.

“I started to look at video of my swing and parts of my body were trying to compensate and my swing wasn’t quite right. My average started dropping and it got to the point where I bought a brace for my elbow, but I didn’t wanna tell anyone. It kind of subdued the pain.”

Finally, though, after about a month, Blair realized he couldn’t continue to play through it.

With his average dropping and his arm in pain, he finally spoke up.

“There was just no way to play through it anymore so I spoke up and got an MRI,” he said. “It came back and they said there was no tear in my UCL, which is the Tommy John ligament. I thought, ‘man, something isn’t right.’

“They said they’ll rehab you and then try to throw. So I do rehab for two or three weeks, I get to the point where I go to the trainer and I said there’s no way I’m going to be able to throw today.”

The pain was so bad for Blair that he felt it when he opened a door, couldn’t eat with his right hand or brush his teeth.

That’s when a doctor from Chicago came in and looked at the injury.

“It really kind of baffled me how the MRI didn’t read that there was something wrong so the doctor came in from Chicago and assessed my arm, he did the Tommy John test, which you can do manually,” Blair said. “When he did, that it hurt so I think something is definitely wrong.”

After talking with his agent, Blair was flown to Chicago to meet with the Cubs’ head surgeon, when he got the news - Tommy John surgery was needed.

“When the Cubs head surgeon looked at my MRI and took me in and did an ultrasound on my elbow and looked and it and said, ‘something is definitely not right, I don’t know how they missed it,’” he said.

Typically, when an ultrasound is done and the elbow is flexed, if the ligament that holds the arm together opens more than 2 millimeters, than Tommy John surgery is required.

Blair’s opened 5 millimeters.

“When they started doing the surgery, my ulnar nerve was also screwed up, so they had to move my nerve from the back to the front, so I no longer have a funny bone,” Blair said with a laugh.

The surgery was performed on Sept. 23, and so far, Blair is right on schedule for a return to the diamond in the near future.

“I went to physical therapy for roughly 13 weeks in Arizona,” he said. “That was Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I was at the same place where guys like Howie Kendrick and Brian Urlacher were going, so it was a top-of-the-line place. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the Cubs just built a new complex, so I would go there and lift lower body and do conditioning, agility drills.

“Now, I’m down with physical therapy so I go to the field Monday through Friday and do shoulder work and forearm conditioning. I’m trying to get my shoulders stronger to compensate for the elbow. On Monday, I was allowed to start lifting upper body again and so I’m starting to do those things.”

Blair is now just three weeks away from being allowed to throw again and will be permitted to begin hitting two weeks after that.

As disappointing as the injury was, Blair said there were some positives to it.

Instead of returning home for the offseason, he got to spend the winter in Airzona. He added about 15 pounds of weight to his legs and believes he could come back as an even better player this season.

“Looking back on it, I it could be a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I’m not that big of a kid, my arm would’ve caught up to me eventually, so it’s better to have this surgery now than later. I do think everything happens for a reason and this allowed to be here all winter and I was able to work on things I couldn’t work on in the snow. I added weight and I think might come back as a totally different player. I like to think it’s a positive.”

The injury has also made Blair’s appreciation for the game grow.

“I appreciate it so much more,” he said. “The last time I was hurt, I broke my hand at Jefferson and I was able to come back from that that season. This being a major injury, it’s really made me, I think, a stronger person mentally. Just how to cope with sitations that come up and make you appreciate the game and realized how blessed I am.”

Blair also had a strong appreciation for the Cubs organization for sticking with him after the injury.

“I’m really blessed for the Cubs to even consider giving me the surgery, they could’ve easily just released me,” he said. “The training staff down here, they’re basically my family, I see them every day. The guys I’m rehabbing with, I’m not the only guy who had Tommy John. So I talk to guys who have been through it and the athletic trainers even though I’m a (Class) A baller, they treat me like a big leaguer. I’m definitely glad I’m down here and grateful to this organization.”

Things are looking up for Blair.

After the struggles of surgery, he’s on schedule to return at the end of March for spring training then will head to extended spring training when the big-league club breaks.

He also got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Rachel Arnold, over Christmas.

So, despite surgery, overall, Blair said it’s been a good year.

“It’s been an up-and-down year, but it’s been mostly up and I’ve stayed positive,” he said. “I already feel stronger and can’t wait to start throwing and getting back out there soon.”

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