Exclusive: Talking Tommy John Surgery with Tommy John

Exclusive: Talking Tommy John Surgery with Tommy John

Tommy John has been retired for a quarter century, but the sinkerballer’s name strangely remains in the conversation more than any current player in Major League Baseball.

Nineteen major leaguers, including two of the game’s best young aces–Patrick Corbin of the Diamondbacks and Jose Fernandez of the Marlins–have succumbed to ulnar collateral ligament injuries requiring Tommy John surgery this year. Even the subject of Disney’s Million Dollar Arm underwent the procedure. With the seventy-year-old pitcher the most talked about baseball player of the young 2014 season, Breitbart Sports naturally reached out to Tommy John to talk about the medical procedure that bears his name.

“If you do a study, the whole thing about Tommy John surgery and the injury itself–it’s an overuse injury,” the three-time 20-game winner explained. That overuse, he theorizes, occurs long before players arrive in the minor leagues. John juxtaposes the financial incentives pulling at coaches at the advanced amateur level to wear out arms with the financial incentives pulling at coaches at the professional level to preserve them. “In college baseball, the coach’s job is to win,” John notes. “If they don’t win, he doesn’t have a job. Our job in the pro ranks is to develop their baseball abilities.”  

Well before players make it to college, or the minor leagues, the wear-and-tear of excessive pitching eats away at young arms. I brought up the case of a Washington state player who made headlines last week by throwing 194 pitches over 14 innings of shutout ball. “I don’t think one game is going to make that kid susceptible to having the surgery,” John maintained. “But I think for these coaches and these schools to force kids at a young age to pick one sport, I think that is as wrong as wrong can be.” Rather than play baseball year round, John believes enthusiasts of the sport would be better off playing other sports. The veteran of 27 seasons in the big leagues decried specialization as the pursuit of “pea brains” who have their own interests as coaches in mind over their players’ futures.

John’s future appeared past him in 1974. Enjoying a 13-3 season with a 2.59 earned-run average, the Dodgers starter felt a terrible pain in his throwing elbow. Tommy John couldn’t rehab his arm into game shape. So, he agreed to allow team doctor Frank Jobe to perform an experimental procedure upon it that transplanted a ligament from the forearm to his damaged elbow. He returned to the majors in 1976 to go 10-10. By the next season, he placed second behind Steve Carlton in Cy Young Award balloting. John’s surprising reemergence left Pete Rose, who famously struggled against the lefthander, to quip, “I know they had to give Tommy John a new arm. But did they have to give him Koufax’s?”

Though the surgery’s continued success keeps John’s name in the news, the 288-game winner hopes that the baseball community takes preventative measures to keep elbows off of operating tables. He wants like Major League Baseball, for instance, to issue guidelines for youth leagues to keep fresh arms from rotting before they ripen.

John fears that the young pitchers most dedicated to their craft may be the ones most jeopardizing their futures. “I think what you’re seeing now is guys that have pitched too much as youngsters,” John explains. “Parents get bilked by these guys who run these pitching academies and workout facilities. I think you’ll find kids in one league in baseball while they’re young, and then they’re playing in two because they want to get exposed. All of this is getting thrust upon young arms that are not strong enough to withstand the rigors of throwing a baseball.”

The theory finds support in the demographics of the MLB pitchers undergoing the surgery. The average age of the nineteen big leaguers requiring the procedure thus far in 2014 doesn’t even surpass 24 years. Padres pitcher Cory Luebke, at 29 one of the older players downed by elbow issues this year, endured his second Tommy John surgery in March. The idea advanced by John and others is that players like Luebke may have started damaging their arms long before they arrived in professional baseball.

Teenagers pitching a season of high school baseball followed by AAU and/or American Legion leagues might be better off putting down a baseball for some other athletic endeavor, maintains John, who ran cross country in the fall and excelled in basketball in the winter before taking the mound during the spring as a high school student-athlete in Terre Haute, Indiana. Instead, pay-to-play leagues, baseball camps, and private coaching lessons keep the season always in season. John laments, “These kids and parents are being sold a bill of goods.”

Check back in tomorrow for part 2 of the Breitbart Sports conversation with Tommy John, in which he discusses the art of pitching, Dr. Frank Jobe, and bouncing back from injury.