BALTIMORE — If the surgery that saved Don Aase's career involved anything other than a pitcher's elbow, it would sound so simple.
A surgeon takes a piece of tissue from another part of the body, usually the foot or forearm, and attaches it to two bones that meet at the elbow. In other words, he creates a new elbow.
When it was performed on pitcher Tommy John 12 years ago, doctors had no idea if it would work, although they knew the theory was sound.
"It's the sort of thing you do when you reconstruct a knee," said Dr. Lewis Yocum, the Los Angeles-based physician who performed the operation on Aase.
"The concept is that you have to do something to hold the two bones together. Preferably, you sew the tendon that's already there back together, but if there's no healthy tissue remaining, you reconstruct by creating a tendon from another piece of tissue."
Yet, while John did return to pitching, he was vastly different, getting by on finesse and control instead of power and intimidation. Still, he was pitching again, and three years later he not only was back on a big league mound, but on his way to winning 80 games over four seasons.
Eight years passed between the time John had his elbow rebuilt and Aase felt his elbow "was on fire." In that time, Yocum and his surgical team performed about 10 similar procedures.
"We knew more, but it still wasn't routine," he said. "It's not routine today. You've got to get the points of attachment just right. You have to get the angle right."
Aase's recovery is different because no pitcher who'd thrown 92 m.p.h. before this kind of operation ever had returned to throw 92 m.p.h. Aase credits Yocum.
"No," Yocum said. "Our work is done in a couple of hours. The other 18 months are up to him."
Three and a half years removed from that operating table, Aase has made a complete and remarkable recovery.
Still only 31, he has been baseball's most dominant relief pitcher in 1986 and everything the Baltimore Orioles hoped for when they signed him to a four-year, $2.4-million free-agent deal after the 1984 season.
Not only has he saved 17 of their 34 victories, but at 6 feet 3, 220 pounds, with an intimidating handlebar mustache, he has performed with so much power and poise that it's hard to believe he's three years removed from living with his right arm in a sling.
A baseball man who watched Aase throw in July 1983 recalled, "He could lob the ball about 10 feet."
At his current pace, Aase would save 48 games, three more than the major-league record established by Kansas City's Dan Quisenberry in 1983 and matched by St. Louis' Bruce Sutter in 1984.
Aase is no Sutter, though. Aase gets his saves not with finesse, but with hard .44-magnum sliders and 92-m.p.h. fastballs.
"You always want to have a guy like Goose Gossage," Orioles Manager Earl Weaver said, "and it looks like we might have one. It's to the point where I look out in the bullpen, and he's almost waving at me, saying, 'Hey, Earl, we can win this game.' "
Orioles reliever Tippy Martinez, who has been relegated to the role of No. 2 short reliever since Aase's arrival, said, "I think this is like a fantasy for Earl. I think he's always dreamed of having that big, dominating, right-handed stopper."
Aase is among the most private of all the Orioles, as hard to reach as Alan Wiggins, as quiet as Jim Dwyer.
Aase said part of his personality is a residual from spending so many hours working out alone while preparing to pitch again. Another part of it is "natural. I don't have much to say."
Glimpses of his personality come a bit at a time, like last weekend in an 18-9 victory at Yankee Stadium when he was the last Orioles' pitcher still in the bullpen and would duck beneath the bench each time the Yankees would get another hit.
Or when he talked about California Manager Jim Fregosi's decision to move him to the bullpen in 1980.
"I think it had something to do with me lasting eight innings (combined) in my last four starts," he said. "Then I went to the bullpen and pitched 17 innings my first week. Fregosi said, 'Now, that's what you've been doing to us. Take some of your own medicine for a while.' "
Yet as the public spotlight has focused on this private person, Aase has not ducked it, and this week, he sat for almost an hour to talk about the highs and lows of 15 years in professional baseball, from being a 17-year-old kid who went 0-10 for Williamsport in 1972 to one who may mean the difference between the Orioles finishing first or third in 1986.
Raised in a middle-class suburb near Anaheim, Calif., his earliest recollection of throwing was that he was good at it. When he was a kid, he and friends would play in some of the miles of orange groves southeast of Los Angeles, and he remembers being able to throw hard even then.
At 11, he played on his first organized team and, naturally, was a pitcher, tall and skinny, with a compact motion and sizzling fastball.