Robin Ventura’s New Ankle

For those who recall the “greatest infield ever”, you should know the name Robin Ventura. Ventura was a major part of the Mets’ success in 1999 and 2000, stroking big clutch hits and flashing gold glove defense at third base. He was a hard-nosed, get-dirty player in the mold of Ray Knight — a sound all-around ballplayer and leader on the field.

Ventura’s career was cut short — though, he did put in 16 seasons — due to a severe ankle injury suffered in a spring training game in 1997 while playing for the White Sox. He slid hard into home plate — yeah, he was one of those guys who went all-out even in ST — and his foot was mangled when it ran into catcher Bill Hasselman. Ventura suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle, and missed over 100 games that season. Though he eventually returned to the field, he suffered continuously with extreme pain in the ankle, regularly getting cortisone shots for the remainder of his career.

The pain grew so great that it forced his retirement in 2004, but leaving the field did nothing to alleviate the problem. Before long, he required a cane to walk around. He had three choices: live the rest of his life in pain, have his ankle fused (and have limited use of it), or get someone else’s ankle.

He picked option three.

Twenty-six months ago, Ventura underwent ankle transplant surgery. A piece of bone harvested from a cadaver was inserted into his right ankle by Dr. William Bugbee, a San Diego-based surgeon who had performed the unusual surgery some 250 times. The procedure involves an incision from the lower shin to the top of the foot and requires removal of a rectangular-shaped portion of the damaged bone, about one inch long, and some cartilage. A piece of bone from a cadaver, shaped to the precise size and shape of the rectangular hole, is inserted and fastened to the bones using four screws.

And now, Ventura is walking — pain-free.

“When they first told me about what they’d be doing and showed me a picture. … yeah, it was, ‘Eeuuuw. I’m not sure this is what I’m looking for — someone else’s bone,'” Ventura said. “My kids don’t get near my foot even now. But I don’t even think about it now. I’m just happy it works.”

More encouraging, it appears that the surgery was a complete success, and Ventura will remain pain-free for the rest of his life … though it’s doubtful he’ll try a comeback anytime soon.

“They said [the transplant] can last one week or for the rest of my life. I’m past one week, so that’s good. And it doesn’t hurt … at all. The beauty of it is that I was never really gifted in that area [with speed], so it hasn’t slowed me down a bit.”

Although I vaguely remember Ventura having some issues with his ankle while with the Mets, he never let on that it was that bad. He was such a gamer, he probably didn’t want anyone to know about it or to appear as a whiner. Glad to find out that he can have a normal life after having such a problem — he was always the type of guy one can feel good about rooting for. I wish him well.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Micalpalyn January 18, 2008 at 10:48 am
    Ventura will remain one of my favorite Mets of all time. Yes it was a short stint but I think he shouyld have returned and stayed instead of the Alomar experiment.