JUPITER, Fla. — Rafael Furcal had tried everything and knew he had no choice.
Unwilling to gamble any longer with his career in doubt, the Cardinals shortstop gave the OK for Dr. James Andrews to schedule Tommy John surgery for next week on his ailing right elbow.
Furcal will miss the entire 2013 season.
“It’s tough for me to say that I’m going to lose the whole year,” Furcal said. “I feel like I don’t know where my mind is right now. I can’t describe it. It’s a tough situation for me.
“It puts me in a situation where sometimes even I want to cry. I feel so bad.”
Furcal, 35, missed the final month of the regular season and playoffs with a partially torn ligament in his right elbow. He elected for rest and rehab instead of surgery and an MRI on November appeared to show that his ligament had completely healed.
But he arrived at spring training unable to make high intensity throws and soon began to feel more pain in his elbow when he tried to make those throws. He was shut down from all baseball activities after reporting sharp pain in the elbow.
“When I came here the first couple days I was feeling pretty good and then I started taking infield and making long throws and it was still bothering me,” Furcal said. “When I started throwing I felt like I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even put my hand on my head. I felt a little pinch way inside.”
An MRI last week by Cardinals team doctors and a follow-up exam Wednesday in Pensacola, Fla., by Andrews showed that Furcal didn’t have much of a choice if he wanted to continue his career next season.
He could have gambled and taken a few months to rest and rehab the ligament and possibly return later in the season. But there was no guarantee that would work, just like it didn’t when Furcal tried to avoid surgery after suffering the injury on Aug. 30.
And that’s the question some want answered. Why didn’t Furcal just have the surgery when the injury first occurred so he could have returned at some point early this season?
“It never was something that was presented to us,” said general manager John Mozeliak. “It’s always an option in the sense that when you send a player to a doctor, it’s always something that could happen, but nobody felt at that time, nor in October nor in November, that that was the smart approach.
“My understanding was no surgeon felt like surgery was the first choice in this case. I know there has been a lot written and a lot of second-guessing that he should have had the surgery back in August or October, but again, nobody told us that was the right choice. I think the conservative approach made sense. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.”
Asked a similar question, manager Mike Matheny said, “We’re going off our doctors. We had some very talented doctors and second opinion doctors that are world renowned in this area and they said this is the route you should go. At that point, the baseball guys step aside and tip their cap and say thank you for the information, we’ll go with it.”
The Cardinals got Furcal in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trading deadline in July 2011 and won the World Series with him at shortstop later that fall. He signed a two-year, $14 million deal to return to the Cardinals later that winter and made the All-Star team last summer in Kansas City.
But Furcal’s hot start at the plate in April and May quickly snowballed into an unstoppable slump. He hit just .215 since July 1 and was dropped down to the No. 8 spot in the batting order before suffering the injury while making a throw in Washington.
Despite news that his season was over, Furcal dressed out Wednesday morning and participated in team stretching and running drills. He caught for coaches near home plate during infield practice.
“Watching the games will be tough,” Furcal said. “It’s different when you’re watching the game than when you’re playing. I want to be out there with the team. If we lose, we lose together. If we win, everybody wins together. But what can I do? We tried everything.
“I don’t want to put the team in that situation where I say I’m ready and I play for 10 or 20 games and then later on I have to go back to the DL and put the team in that situation. (Dr. Andrews) told me the truth. He’s the doctor and he’s better than I am with what I can do and how I can get better.”
Said Matheny, “The guy loves the game of baseball. He just wants to play and I think that’s why he didn’t want to surrender to the idea of surgery early on because he felt if they were giving him a chance to get through it he would get through it and keep playing. Now after trying that route he feels that his hands are kind of tied here and he’s got to do what he has to do to play . . . I feel for him, just knowing that it’s not something he wanted to obviously go through.”
Pete Kozma appears likely to serve as the primary shortstop in the near future. The former first-round draft pick replaced Furcal in the lineup last September and October and helped the Cardinals get to within one game of the World Series.
And he’ll have a big fan rooting him on from the dugout.
“Kozma is a young guy but he has good talent,” Furcal said. “I’ll be happy if he does a great job for the team and helps the team win. I’ll be proud and be happy and be watching every game.”
Furcal said he hopes to be able to return in time to play in the Dominican Winter League next winter to try and earn a contract for 2014.
“I feel like I can still play,” Furcal said. “I am only 35 years old. You see guys play who are 50.
“It’s not the end of my career. I want to get this done right now and be ready for next year and see what happens.”