Column: Hamilton loses season to wrong diagnosis
By: John Perrotto, Times Sports Staff
Clayton Hamilton felt the persistent pain in his lower side for more than a year.
The Pittsburgh Pirates doctors and trainers kept telling the right-handed pitching prospect that he had a strained oblique muscle, which has become the baseball injury of the 2000s. They told him to rest and it would get better.
However, the pain never went away for the Blackhawk High School and Penn State graduate.
Not after he spent two months last season on the disabled list with high Class A Lynchburg. Not after he spent the off-season living in Bradenton, Fla., so he could work out at the Pirates' spring training facility. Not after he made 15 starts for Lynchburg this season before going on the DL on July 7 and being sent to Bradenton to do more rehabilitation work.
The pain is still there and will cause Hamilton to miss the remainder of what little is left of the Carolina League season that ends on Labor Day. At least Hamilton has the peace of mind to know the injury is something more than a strained oblique.
It turns out Hamilton had been pitching and living with a broken 11th rib since sometime early last season.
"For the past year, I kept wondering if I didn't have something more wrong with me than a strained muscle," Hamilton said by phone from Bradenton earlier this week. "It just didn't seem right that the injury never went away. Sometimes, it would hurt worse than at other times but there was always that lingering pain.
"Finally, once they sent me to Bradenton about three weeks ago, I asked the Pirates if they could run some more tests."
Those tests revealed the fracture.
"Unless you were 90 or older, there was no way you couldn't look at the X-ray and tell that the rib was broken," Hamilton said. "It was plain as day."
The initial thought is that there was a gross case of negligence on the part of the Pirates' medical staff for Hamilton to be allowed to pitch with an undiagnosed broken bone for more than a year. Though the whole world has become sue-happy to the point of ridiculousness, Hamilton seemingly has a strong malpractice case in this instance.
But Hamilton isn't looking to cause any strife with the Pirates.
"It just happened," Hamilton said. "I certainly didn't think that I had a broken rib. I had the symptoms of an oblique strain and that's what the doctors and trainers had to go on."
Now, Hamilton is hoping to recover in time for the start of spring training next February. There is little he can do for the injury now, except rest, so he will return home at the end of the month and wait the pain out.
Doctors have told him there is a chance the rib may never heal properly because he continued to pitch and work out with it broken for over a year.
"There is a possibility that I may always have to live with a certain amount of pain whenever I'm involved in any physical activity," Hamilton said. "Hopefully, it heals. If not, I'll have to learn how to manage it."
One way Hamilton thinks he can manage the discomfort is by being switched from a starting pitcher to a reliever. Hamilton's fastball has been clocked as high as 95 mph, which certainly more than qualifies for short relief work.
"I've always thought, in the long run, that my best chance to get to the major leagues is as a relief pitcher," Hamilton said. "Maybe this injury will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Maybe I'll get my career moving again because of it."
At 25, old for Class A ball, Hamilton needs to make his move soon. Finally knowing the extent of his injury should only help him get going.
John Perrotto can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org