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01/11/08 11:28 AM ET

Ventura a marvel of modern medicine

Former third baseman pain free after ankle transplant surgery

Robin Ventura is going to Spring Training next month. No big thing, except that he hasn't been since 2004. He's going, not as a phenom, of course -- not at age 40 -- but as a genuine phenomenon. He doubts he'll take any swings in the cage. Chances are he won't take any ground balls either. And, goodness knows, Ventura won't do any running.

Limping, that's out of the question, too.

Ventura will spend his days playing some catch and some golf and swapping tales with his old White Sox buddies in Tucson, Ariz. And, chances are, he can top any story Harold Baines, Ozzie Guillen, Joey Cora or Greg Walker shares. Ventura is walking around with someone else's bone in his ankle.

What matters most, of course, is that he's walking, period. No pain, no limp. No kidding.

Twenty-six months ago, Ventura underwent ankle transplant surgery. A piece of bone harvested from a cadaver was inserted into his right ankle, the ankle he grotesquely mangled in a slide at the plate in Spring Training, 1997.

The ankle allograft has made the former Mets and White Sox third baseman whole again as well as something of a curiosity. The sense of wonder has subsided to a degree within Ventura, but most others who become aware of what he had endured are incredulous -- or merely non-believers.

"They say, 'Really, what did you have done?'" Ventura said. "Most people aren't very familiar with the procedure."

Ventura was forced to become quite familiar with it when walking became a hardship in 2005. The condition of his ankle had ended his career prematurely following the previous season, his 16th season in the big leagues and his second with the Dodgers. And the condition deteriorated significantly in his first months away from the game.

"Most mornings I needed an hour to get past the pain and get going," he said Thursday night from his home in California. "The mornings it didn't take an hour, it took longer."

Ventura relied on a cane five out of seven days and limped conspicuously despite it. Physical activity was out of the question. His wife, Stephanie, did most of the driving, dropping off her disabled husband as close as possible to their destination.

"People didn't believe that either," he said. "They thought I was joking."

Life as a regular citizen didn't include the medical attention Ventura received from the trainers of the clubs with which he played, and treatment had lost its impact. He had received an average of one cortisone shot per month in his final season. And shots then hardly were a new part of his treatment. "I probably had two a year when I was with the Mets [1999-2001]," he said. "My body's taken a lot of cortisone."

"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."
-- Robin Ventura

His frustration increased and his mobility diminished. "I know others have worse conditions," Ventura said. "I didn't whine. But you do get tired of being so limited. So I began researching."

By August 2005, not even one year removed from his final big league swing, Ventura had taken the advice of longtime friend and White Sox trainer Herm Schneider and visited Dr. William Bugbee, the San Diego-based surgeon who would perform the procedure on Nov. 18. Ventura had two options: have the ankle fused and be quite limited for the remainder of his life or undergo the surgery Bugbee had performed some 250 times.

"Even if it didn't work, I still could have it fused," Ventura said. "But if I had it fused, I couldn't come back some time later and have [the transplant]." So the choice was relatively easy.

Once tests and X-rays determined Ventura was a candidate for the procedure, patience was necessary. A donor match had to be achieved before Ventura could become a recipient. "It had to fit exact measurements," he said. "Once they found one, I had one day to get down [to San Diego]. You don't know the day is coming, and it's a six-month rehab, so it disrupts your life from the moment you decide to have it done. But it's worth it."

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.

"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."

Rehabbing the ankle was quite simple. "[Dr. Bugbee] told me just stay off it," Ventura said. The prescribed exercises excluded any weight-bearing movement.

Ventura's ankle was severely damaged -- a compound fracture and a dislocation -- when his spikes caught as he slid into Bill Hasselman of the Red Sox in an exhibition game March 21, 1997. His right leg atrophied after the subsequent surgery and never regained the tone and strength it had. Ventura returned to play that summer and remained a productive player through 2002, the first of two seasons with the Yankees that followed three with the Mets. He was mostly a role player thereafter.

He played for a week, at first base, with the Dodgers in the summer of 2004, and that sequence of games convinced him retirement was necessary. "By the end of the week, it was killing me," Ventura said. "But now, I'm fine. 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."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.