By Joe Strauss
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Barry Weinberg Mark Mulder
Cardinals trainer Barry Weinberg (right) talks with disabled starting pitcher Mark Mulder in the dugout during a game between the Cards and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. In background is assistant trainer Greg Hauck.
Mark Mulder wants nothing more than to guarantee that he will pitch again in the major leagues, preferably this summer for the team that signed him to a two-year, $13 million contract in January 2007.
Except Mulder can't say that now, three weeks after insisting he would be starting for the Cardinals before the All-Star break. His left shoulder won't let him.
"I sit on my couch and all I can do is think about what I can try the next day to make it better," Mulder said before the Cardinals began a weekend series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team he beat six times without a loss before labrum and rotator cuff issues derailed him in 2006. "That's not the way to go about it. I want to get better. I want to get healthy. I want to go pitch. But whatever I try throwing-wise isn't working."
Mulder has not pitched effectively since mid-May 2006.
He has had two shoulder surgeries and got married and started a family since winning his last game, a five-inning outing against the Pirates on June 15, 2006.
It's been far longer since he pitched without physical distraction.
Asked how he managed 16 wins for the Cardinals in 2005 when he had a deteriorating delivery, Mulder says without hesitation, "Smoke and mirrors."
Mulder has invested four seasons in St. Louis. To get him, the Cardinals invested a talented package consisting of rising star Dan Haren, middle reliever Kiko Calero and former first-round draftee Daric Barton to acquire him from the Oakland A's in December 2004, less than two months after their World Series wipeout against the Boston Red Sox.
Mulder's velocity dropped dramatically before joining the disabled list with shoulder fatigue in June 2006. After allowing 22 baserunners in 4 2/3 innings that August, Mulder underwent surgery.
Hoping to save face in a deal that cost them a future All-Star, Haren, the Cardinals committed $13 million to Mulder for 2007-08.
"We understood the risk. When you go down that path, you're hoping for a good recovery and a good outcome. It hasn't gone as well as planned," said general manager John Mozeliak, then assistant to Walt Jocketty. "The player and the club are frustrated. I'm not convinced he's done yet. I think he can get back to where he once was."
The Cardinals wanted so badly to justify the investment (and find lightning within a pennant race) that they allowed Mulder three starts last September before admitting that, yes, he was still damaged and would require additional surgery.
Mulder's three outings consisted of 29 baserunners and four home runs in 11 innings pitched for a 12.27 ERA and three losses.
Surgery revealed that one of two rows of sutures from the initial procedure had failed. A portion of his rotator cuff was dead tissue and had to be shaved off.
Just as the first surgery was declared a success, so was the second. Mulder insists he is pain-free but acknowledges that it is impossible for his arm to be in the proper throwing position within his normal delivery.
Mulder says he views tapes of himself from his 21-win season in 2001 and doesn't recognize the motion. He describes his shoulder then as loose and "oiled," a good thing.
As he averaged more than 206 innings and almost 30 starts the next three seasons, Mulder's throwing motion became less fluid and more choppy.
"I don't know why. It just happened," he said.
Mulder, still two months shy of 31, does not recall experiencing shoulder pain earlier in his career, but there was a mysterious change in arm angle. As he racked up 88 wins from 2001 to 2005, no one cared to question why Mulder's throwing form was changing. He and the Los Angeles Angels' Bartolo Colon tied for the major leagues' most victories during the five years.
Mulder acknowledged before 2007 spring training that he wasn't right when the Cardinals traded for him. However, two surgeries and a 30-day rehab assignment were intended to change that.
"I was supposed to be healthy. So why aren't I?" he said.
The Cardinals say a recent MRI revealed no new damage to the rotator cuff. Yet no one can explain why Mulder's shoulder joint fails to properly rotate within its socket.
"So far, it hasn't worked. That's not to say there's not some different stretching or something else we haven't tried yet," Mulder said. "There are things that haven't been discussed because we don't know exactly why it's not rotating right."
Mulder mentions an attempt may be made to stretch the socket in order to allow him greater movement. But he told a group of reporters last week he would retire rather than submit to additional surgery. Two days later, he amended what had sounded like an ultimatum.
"What I meant was, I should be better by now. Having to go through the mental grind and arriving at the realization that I'm not better now, it's tough to take," Mulder explained. "You invest so much in getting back and then it doesn't happen. If they were to tell me, 'This procedure will do it. You'll be back.' I'd do it in a heartbeat. But if it's what they 'think' might improve it, I'm over that."
Sunday, Mulder is scheduled to throw in the Busch Stadium outfield, not off a bullpen mound. It's part of starting over, again.
"When you work this hard and do everything you can do, I can't beat myself over it," he said. "I've tried."