July 20, 2012
Mark Whicker: Tommy John and Frank Jobe Revolutionized Baseball
"It's the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the Palmaris longus tendon," Tommy John said. "That's why they call it Tommy John surgery."
That is why teenage pitchers, with scarred elbows, should have attended Pasadena Central Library on Sunday and offered thanks.
They could have learned the operation is named after a real live pitcher, one who got 164 of his 288 career victories after exposing his left arm to a knife that never had gone exactly there before.
But it is actually the Frank Jobe surgery.
The Dodgers' orthopedist performed the first one on John in 1974. John thereupon won 20 or more games in three different seasons, and he went 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA in 14 playoff games.
The career that was supposed to end with one faulty pitch on July 17, 1974 wound up lasting 26 years, one short of the all-time record.
On Sunday, John introduced his doctor as Jobe was inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals by the Baseball Relinquary, as were pitchers Jim "Mudcat" Grant and Luis Tiant.
The Shrine recognizes baseball people whose careers were too short or controversial to make the Cooperstown class but are often more influential. Marvin Miller, Fernando Valenzuela and Bill Veeck, to name three.
Both John and Jobe deserve to enter the real Hall. There is no calculating the years, victories and money that they recovered for pitchers.
Just on Sunday, Tommy John alum Ben Sheets made his first start in two years, for the Braves. Two-time patient Chris Capuano rushed into the Dodgers' breach when Chad Billingsley's elbow acted up.
In the final game of the 2012 season, TJ veteran Chris Carpenter won the World Series for the Cardinals. Texas signed 37-year-old closer Joe Nathan, two years removed from Tommy John, last winter.
Until John, a felled pitcher just rested and hoped. Or he kept pitching, and wound up selling insurance.
Now? There are 41 pitchers on major league rosters who have had the surgery in the past 24 months.
"When you add up all the procedures in the United States and Japan, it would have to go well into the thousands," said Dr. Chris Jobe, Frank's son and an orthopedic surgeon at Loma Linda University.
"Sixteen year olds come to see you now. Their parents have the MRI results. You have to explain that Tommy John was a major league pitcher before his surgery."
Has it become routine, like filling a cavity?
Not quite, but Chris Jobe said his dad, who turns 87 today, was performing the surgery in 40 minutes at the end of his career. The first one took three hours, just because it was unplowed ground, if you will.
"But Tommy's attitude was the special thing," Frank Jobe said. "He didn't hesitate. He said, 'Let's do it.'"
Options were gone. Trainer Bill Buhler had actually taped up his elbow, as he would an ankle, to allow John to grunt the ball 60 feet, 6 inches. But John knew he couldn't get major league outs.
Vin Scully watched John run endless, wishful laps in the Astrodome before a game and wondered how John could push this boulder back to normalcy.
Yet John trusted Jobe. The doctor had opened up his elbow in 1972, to clean out bone chips after John had hurt himself sliding. "I was absolutely petrified before that surgery," John said.
Now it was down to cut or run.
Jobe told John that the new surgery "might" restore his career.
"I had been the valedictorian in my high school class," John said. "I knew might was better than never. There was no downside risk."
But Jobe also brought in Herb Stark, a hand surgeon who had performed tendon transfers, and other experts, too.
"That's because I don't know what I'm doing," Jobe said.
"I knew right then that's why I wanted him operating," John said Sunday. "He admitted to being human."
Jobe transferred the Palmaris longus, located in the wrist, and made it into a ligament, figuring it would regenerate itself.
John missed 1975. His first post-op game was a loss, five tentative innings against Atlanta. But he went seven in each of the next three outings and got an L.A. standing ovation when he beat the Pirates on April 26, 1976. "I felt like jumping over the fence," he said.
Jobe had other moments, too. In World War II, he landed in Belgium, on a glider and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He also delivered 200 babies.
"And he published seven books," John said, smiling. "I dug a little deeper and found that one of the titles was 'Fifty Shades Of Orthopedic Surgery.'"
The audience laughed, but hundreds of pitchers know that they're all shades of green.
Mark Whicker is a sports columnist for the Orange County Register. You can follow him on Twitter at @MWhickerOCR.