Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tommy John: So Committed To the Game They Named a Surgery After Him

In my brief time as a writer of sports, I've made it my practice to write about my beloved Red Sox. They are the team that makes my heart palpitate. "Born and Bred Red Sox Red" is the unofficial mantra I've coined for myself.

There is no shortage of Todd speak on these pages, waxing poetic about The Boys From the Back Bay. But, anyone who has gotten to know me has learned that more than the Sox, I love any guy who plays the game hard. The Lunch Box Athletic Club. The blue collar dudes and dud-ettes of any sport, who roll up their sleeves, get dirty, play hard and scrum to the death.

I like guys who play hurt. The scrappers. The players who strap on their chin straps, despite the fact that they just spit their teeth onto the floor of the bench. I love the guys who can take a high hard one under the chin and slap the next pitch back through the box.

If I were to create a Top Ten list of these bad asses, I'd have to include a fair-haired guy from Terre Haute, Indiana. A guy who nearly had his dream snatched from his very grip after 13 years playing the game he loved. A guy who opted to be the Guinea Pig for a revolutionary surgery that would save the careers of hundreds of his baseball brothers over the next thirty years.

That man is of course the man after whom Tommy John surgery was named, Tommy John.

John entered the Major Leagues as a 20-year-old for the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 6, 1963. He struggled throughout his first two seasons going 2-11 for the Tribe before finding himself after a trade to the Chicago White Sox.

Over the next seven seasons, John became a left-handed control artist for the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers going 122-95. In 1968, while pitching for the White Sox, he was named to the American League All-Star squad.

During his 1974 season, John permanently damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm and nearly saw his career come to a screeching halt after slightly more than a decade in the Show.

John proved to young players and non-players alike that when adversity steers you in the eyes, you steer right back at it. Instead of hanging his head and hanging up the resin bag he met with Dr. Frank Jobe, who made John a guinea pig by replacing the ligament in the elbow of his pitching arm with a tendon from the right forearm.

John had the surgery on Sept. 25, 1974. He spent the entire 1975 season recovering from but shocked the baseball world when he returned to the Dodgers rotation in 1976.

When asked about his post surgery career, John said:

"The mental part was the hardest. The competitiveness in any athlete makes them want to be out there helping the team. After I'd do my workouts, and my therapy and everything, I'd go into the stands and watch the game. But at the All-Star break in 1975, I'd regained my fastball, and that was some light at the end of the tunnel. That was the biggest thing."

There were two memorable quotes regarding the surgery, coincidentally both involving Dodger great Sandy Koufax. The modest John quipped, "When they operated, I told them to put in a Koufax fastball. They did—but it was Mrs. Koufax's."

Hitting legend Pete Rose saw it differently however when he said, "I know they had to graft a new arm on John, but did they have to give him Sandy Koufax?"

In the season following John's ground breaking surgery, he went 10-10 and pitched over 200 innings. Following the 1976 season, John was awarded the Hutch Award for displaying honor, courage and dedication to baseball both on and off the field.

After the 1981 season, John was awarded the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, which is given to the player who best exemplifies the character of Lou Gehrig. He was elected to the All-Star team in 1978, 1979 and 1980.

His career record In the years following the surgery, was 162-125 in 15 seasons with the Dodgers, Angels, A's and Yankees. He finished second in the Cy Young Award balloting in 1977 and 1979 seasons, and went 4-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven League Championship Series starts and 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA in six World Series appearances for his career.

Despite his physical challenges, one of John’s greatest achievements is that he competed in the major leagues for 26 seasons.

"I'd just hope that people will look and see that I'm the 'fifth-winningest' left-hander of all-time," said John who finished his Major League career with just under 300 wins.

"I'd never have been able to win 288 games without the surgery. We're going to be linked forever."

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