Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He's a 21st Century Bo Jackson

Pitcher had left hip replaced, but eager to thrive in Fish rotation

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Isaac Hess wants to be his generation's Bo Jackson.

The 25-year-old starting pitcher had his left hip replaced nearly six years ago, after years of suffering from Perthes disease, an affliction where part of the bone dies because the hip doesn't develop properly in the socket.

"I had bad arthritis at 19. But it's definitely all good now. I'm getting stronger every day and every season," he said.

"The only difference between me and other pitchers is I don't run. I bike, swim or do the Stairmaster, anything low impact to get the heart going. I've even started doing hot yoga at Bikram here in town."

There is one other significant difference. Minor league clubs affiliated with big league teams won't sign him because of the risk presented by his hip.

"The doctors say my hip will fail eventually, that's what teams are scared of, but that's based on stats for 65-year-olds, not young athletes. It's frustrating but the things I can control are continuing to play the game, how I prepare and staying healthy," he said.

After his surgery, Hess's rehabilitation was overseen by Mack Newton, the same trainer who got Jackson -- the former two-sports star in baseball and football -- back into shape, and a man with two artificial hips himself. Jackson had his right hip replaced after a freak injury on the gridiron two decades ago. He retired from football but came back for two more seasons of baseball, primarily as a designated hitter.

"I was throwing after three months and off the mound five month after (my surgery)," he says.

Hess said he opted for the procedure, which is usually performed on patients two or three times his age, to both improve his quality of life and to get him back on his field of dreams. With a fastball that clocks in between 87 and 90 m.p.h., he's hoping to parlay his season with the Goldeyes into opportunities in Venezuela and Japan (he played last year in Mexico). If he can succeed there, he's optimistic he could "force" an affiliated team to take a serious look at him because his potential reward exceeds his risk.

Hess said it's better to be a pitcher with an artificial hip than a position player.

"I'm aware of my limitations. You don't have a lot of wear and tear as a pitcher compared to running the bases and diving for balls," he said.

Goldeyes manager Rick Forney obviously has confidence in Hess, as he's scheduled him to be the team's opening day starter on Thursday. He's said he doesn't give Hess's artificial hip a second thought.

"Why should I? I've seen him pitch and he's got a proven track record. He's a competitor and he enjoys playing the game. He's got good velocity. The only reason he's not in affiliated baseball is because he can't pass the physical," he said.

Forney wasn't optimistic that a major league team would take a serious look at Hess, no matter how well he pitches, but that doesn't mean that windows won't open up elsewhere for him.

"He still has an opportunity to make a career of baseball," he said.

Hess has received a few words of encouragement from Jackson on the phone. Despite their similarities, he said there are some significant differences, too. Jackson was already a well-known, marketable star with a multi-million-dollar promotional deal with Nike.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2011 C3

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