ALLENTOWN - The 19 red seams inked on the inside of Alec Asher's right elbow take the shape of a baseball each time he flexes the arm. Asher had the tattoo done when he was 16. It is the lasting reminder of a promising career that almost ended before it really began.
Asher, who will take the mound for the Phillies in his major-league debut on Sunday, had Tommy John surgery when he was 14. The baseball seams cover a surgeon's scar that was once an ugly shade of purple. Asher's elbow burned out at a young age from overuse.
Doctors told him that reconstructive surgery was the only option if he wanted to continue playing baseball. The elbow's ulnar collateral ligament was frayed to almost nothing, Asher said. It was barely hanging on. He said he could not throw a ball 20 feet without immense pain.
"Everyone knew I loved baseball, and I wanted to keep playing," said Asher, a 23-year-old righthander with triple-A Lehigh Valley. "The next step, if I wanted to keep playing, was to get it done."
Asher grew up in Florida, allowing him to play baseball throughout the year. He played for three teams and pitched three times a week. Asher's high school allowed him to play for the junior varsity team when he was in sixth grade. The workload became too much. His arm did not want to cooperate any longer.
He removed himself after just one inning of a fall-league game. Asher told his father that he could no longer reach home plate. His son was not one to complain, Bob Asher said, so the next day he took Alec to a doctor, who told the Ashers that Tommy John surgery was required.
The doctor gave Bob Asher a list of doctors in South Florida who could do the procedure. Asher went home and did his own research. If his son was going to get the surgery, he wanted to make sure it was going to be done right.
He found James Andrews, who is considered one of the world's leading orthopedic surgeons. Bob Asher called Andrews' office in Birmingham, Ala., and secured an appointment for a month and a half later.
Alec Asher; his father; and mother, Stephanie, drove nine hours to Birmingham and met with Andrews on a Monday. The operation was Tuesday. The patellar tendon was removed from his left leg and inserted into his elbow.
The procedure cost $22,000, a huge investment, Alec Asher said. His father is a transportation manager for a trucking company. His mother is a hairdresser.
The Ashers signed up for a payment plan. Their final bill came within the last year, almost nine years after the surgery. Bob Asher said his son had so much passion for baseball. The family did what it had to do to keep that passion alive.
"It was worth it. Absolutely. Never a moment of regret," Bob Asher said. "I felt like at least it would give him the chance to play the rest of high school and college."
The surgery sidelined Asher for an entire year. There was no need to rush back, Asher said, because of how young he was. He would return in time for his freshman high school season. He excelled at McKeel Academy and Lakeland High before being selected by San Francisco in the 23d round of the 2010 draft.
Asher decided to sign with the Giants. He flew to the team's Arizona training facility for an introductory physical. The Giants found a two-millimeter bone spur in his right elbow and decided against signing him. Instead, they handed him a plane ticket back to Florida.
"The hardest thing I ever had to deal with was my kid calling me from Arizona and telling me, 'Dad, they just handed me a ticket through the door.' He couldn't even hold back the tears. I was at work and I'm starting to bawl. That was hard," Bob Asher said. "He had so many reasons why he could've quit the game, and he never quit. He never, ever said: 'Screw it. I'm over it.' He just keeps persevering."
Asher had surgery to remove the bone spur and missed the fall season of his freshman year at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla. He transferred the following year to Lakeland's Polk State in order to spend his sophomore year closer to home. Asher developed into a complete pitcher at Polk. He had a 1.38 ERA and struck out 118 batters in 111 innings. The Texas Rangers drafted him in the fourth round in 2012.
"Don't take your arm for granted," Alec Asher said. "This is the only one you have. You have to take care of it. That's the thing that I tell younger kids. If you want to play, make sure you take care of yourself. Because this is the only arm you have. Unless you're ambidextrous."
He reached triple A in May and was traded to the Phillies in July as part of the Cole Hamels trade. Asher had a 2.08 ERA in his four starts with the IronPigs. The 6-foot-4 righthander throws a two-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and change-up. His power comes from his strong legs.
"It would mean everything. It's everything that I dream about," Asher said last week about pitching in the majors. "My parents always asked me when I was younger, 'What do you want to do when you're older?' I said, 'I want to play professional baseball.' I wasn't going to stop."
On Sunday, when he makes his major-league debut against the San Diego Padres, another reminder of his journey will be tattooed underneath his glove. Asher had a fortune cookie's message inked on the inside of his left wrist after the Giants sent him home. He ate at a Chinese restaurant the night before.