Every season baseball fans hear of the players who undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, more commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery.
For the New York Mets, rotation stalwarts such as Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and Jacob deGrom have all undergone their own Tommy John surgeries in the past, joining a growing list of some of the game’s best who have also gone under the knife.
While no player wants to hear those three dreaded words, Tommy John surgery has grown to be seemingly customary in modern baseball. With the success rate and ability for pitchers to be back on the mound at an average of twelve to sixteen months – depending on the amount of time a team deems necessary – it’s become somewhat of a commonplace surgery in baseball.
Rewind the clock back to 1974, where a 31-year-old left hander was in the midst of his twelfth major league season, having compiled 124 wins with a 2.97 ERA and 71 shutouts in his career to date. Tommy John was already an established starter in the majors, an All Star in 1968 and tied for the most shutouts in the majors in back-to-back seasons in 1966-67.
On July 17, 1974, Tommy John was facing the Montreal Expos in the top of the third inning, with runners on first and second. John threw a sinker to Expos first baseman Hal Breeden, when he felt a searing pain in his elbow. He tried to throw another pitch before leaving the game, requesting to see good friend and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe.
Dr. Jobe delivered the harsh reality to John; if he didn’t undergo surgery his career would be over. The even riskier notion was that what Dr. Jobe was planning on doing had never been performed before by a medical professional, and the concept having only been used on hands and to reinforce joints in polio patients. With the odds stacked against him, John trusted his friend and agreed to do whatever it took to get back onto the mound, something he had loved since his days in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The rest as they say, is history.
John underwent successful surgery, which included removing a tendon from John’s right wrist and attaching it to his left elbow. A second surgery was needed months later because the ulnar nerve was damaged, after which John undertook a rigorous rehab.
After missing the entire 1975 season, John returned to the mound in April of 1976. The surgery saved his career, as he went on to pitch another 14 seasons, amassing 164 wins over 2544.2 innings. He started 382 games during that period, 10th most among starting pitchers.
John retired at the age of 46, and is eighth all-time in games started (700), 20th all-time in innings pitched (4710.1) and is 7th among left-handed pitchers in career wins with 288.
John’s legacy is forever cemented in baseball lore; essentially the pioneer guinea pig who took a leap of faith under the direction of a dear friend and forever changed the way in which careers could be saved.
I had the privilege of speaking with John several weeks back, where we discussed his elbow history, the surgery, and his thoughts on the current pitchers and their training regimens.
MMO: I read that you had elbow problems early on in your childhood, can you talk a bit about your injury past?
Tommy: I first hurt my elbow when I was 13. Not trying to throw 600 mph like the kids are doing today, not playing in a fall league, winter league, or winter workout. Not having coaches working with me, lifting weights, trying to throw the ball 150 mph. I hurt my elbow going from little league distance to major league distance, forty-six feet to sixty feet.
I shut it down for a year.
We didn’t have doctors back then in my day. Well, you had an orthopedic but the guy we went to back in Terre Haute if you had a sore arm was the vet. He had a liniment that they would give the horses and they would rub it on your arm and everybody that had sore arms and sore this and that claimed that the vet was the best that they had ever seen. I didn’t go to the vet, I went to this track and field coach and he said shut it down. So my thirteen-year-old year all I did was play first base. I hit home runs, I mean, I looked like a Don Mattingly, a right-handed hitting Don Mattingly. Then I came back at fourteen and I was fine.
My arm started hurting in the minor leagues in ’62. We had four man rotations and you pitched, you pitched seven to nine innings. Then in ’63 my elbow started to get sore again but in that time of baseball you never mentioned that you had a sore elbow. You mentioned you had a sore elbow and that would get you sent back home, get you released, and you’re back to selling cars on your buddy’s used car lot. Nowadays these guys have post nasal drip and they go in and the trainers go, ‘Oh my God’, and they shut you down. I mean, it was totally different, night and day.
Maybe we should’ve babied ourselves more back then, and maybe today they should not baby them as much as they do. That being said, I was in Puerto Rico pitching and it got to the point that I could not throw a baseball. I pitched a shutout, a nine inning shutout and the next day I got up and I could not move my arm. I finally went to the manager and I told him. He called Cleveland and they sent me home and I went over to the St. Louis Cardinals, they had sent me over to see a guy named Bob Bowman. Bob was the trainer with the Cardinals, and he was very, very, very adept at assessing injuries. He had me doing some exercises, had me putting my arm in a bucket of rice and work it around to strengthen the muscles in and around your elbow.
Probably two dates in history that people will say what were you doing when. November 22, 1963, the date John Kennedy was killed I was sitting in the St. Louis Cardinals’ orthopedic surgeon’s office getting my first elbow injection. Between November 22 ’63 and July 17, of ’64 I probably had forty or fifty injections in my elbow. Now they know not to inject like that but back then, your arm’s sore, we’ll inject it.
MMO: You were also a talented basketball player in your youth, did you have thoughts of trying to go pro?
Tommy: Professionally, no. I had fifty scholarship offers for basketball to go to college, and I had one in baseball, so what does that tell you?
MMO: You were a guy that featured two pitches (sinker and curveball), how were you able to navigate throughout your career utilizing just those two pitches?
Tommy: We had a pitching coach, probably the best pitching coach I’ve ever had, his name was Ray Berres. Ray said, “If you could throw two pitches over the plate whenever you want to, you can pitch.”
I threw sinker/curveball and people asked, how can you do it? Well, if you know where it’s going and you can locate your fastball, I mean, I could throw my fastball inside, that wasn’t my strength, my strength was pitching low and away. Lefties, pitching inside; righties, pitching outside.
I could do that and you throw the ball inside and I could throw curveballs. I could back door curveballs, I could throw curveballs to right-handed hitters’ back feet. I could throw a curveball to the front part of the plate, you know just kind of flop it up to the plate. I could throw it side arm, three-quarters, overhand it. You know how do you do that? You do it by practicing.
After my surgery I asked Dr. Jobe, ‘What do I do?’ And he said, “Well, you know, you’ve got to get your arm strong.” The only way we knew how to get your arm strong back in that time period was to throw a baseball. Now guys go, huh, get my arm strong? I’m going to go out and lift weights, I’m going to do dead lifts and this and that. It’s like Noah Syndergaard that put on all that muscle weight and he probably hindered his career more than anything he could ever have done. Back then you threw a baseball.
From that time on when I started to come back in 1975 until I quit in 1989, if I was on the baseball field, if we were playing during the season, I threw off the mound to a catcher every single day. I did not throw long and I can tell you this about long throwing. The last year I pitched when Dallas Green was the manager of the Yankees, the pitching coach was Billy Connors. And Billy said, “Tommy, I really think if you throw long you might add a couple of miles per hour to your fastball.” Okay, so I bought into it, but I knew then I was making the worst mistake. Being a good pitcher doesn’t mean throwing long; you only have to throw the ball sixty-feet six-inches. So why don’t you practice throwing sixty-feet six-inches? Everybody wants to know, how do you become better? You practice.
Larry Bird was a tremendous foul shooter. He would shoot fifty to one hundred foul shots after practice, not before practice, after practice when you’re dead tired. He said that’s when you’re going to have to make them in a ballgame, when you’re dead tired. If you practice these things and practice the skills, why don’t we do more of that of practicing pitching? Not lifting weights, not doing all these things, but practicing pitching. You don’t throw the ball three hundred feet, you throw it sixty-feet six inches.
MMO: Why do you suspect there’s such a spike in pitcher injuries? Do you think players are going to the extreme with weight lifting and other unnecessary training programs?
Tommy: I think it is, I think that’s one part of it. I think that we’ve gotten away from doing the things it takes to be a good pitcher. A friend of mine down in South Carolina, she’s a golf professional, and she and her husband have one child. He plays on a team called the Carolina Tomahawks. They’re playing their fall season now and the kid takes pitching lessons. They’re trying to raise money to go to Cooperstown next summer to play in that Field of Dreams tournament for a week up there, I mean, that’s great.
Kids need to do more things than just pitch, or hit, or whatever. They need to pitch, play soccer, run cross country, you need to play football, basketball, just moving and keep doing all this stuff all year round. You don’t have to lift weights or throw a baseball year round. You throw a baseball in baseball season and you keep your body active in the rest of the year.
In fact, I don’t know when it’s going to come out but my son has written a book. I don’t know the title of it as of yet, there was three or four of them. It’s going to come out next baseball season and it’s by Dr. Tommy John and it’s going to be on how to prevent from having Tommy John surgery. I’m really anxious to read it. He and I have talked about it but it’s about all these things parents do or don’t do to make their sons better.
The best thing you can do is getting them out of the pitching stalls in the fall and winter and get them out on the soccer field, football field, basketball court, the hockey rink, and get them to play other sports and he’s got some great ideas in there about how to maintain arm health.
In fact, I’m trying to hook him up with Sandy Alderson, the Mets GM, because the Mets have had so many problems I think they have to rethink their workout programs, their training program, I think they have to rethink all of that because their guys are going down right and left.
MMO: Viewing from afar, do you think the specific training programs these pitchers are doing, or not doing are causing the issues with injuries?
Tommy: Yes, yes. I think the trainers, the strength coaches that they have in baseball now, they never played baseball. They have no idea what it takes to be a baseball pitcher, a baseball player. I think that baseball has got to rethink how they go about all of this. Can you stop it overnight? No. In fact, I asked my son, I said, ‘Tom, if I could get you a job doing this with helping the Mets out,’ he said, “No, I want nothing to do with it.” And I said, ‘Really, why?’ He said, “You’re in a losing situation in baseball because baseball is controlled by money.” Who controls the money in baseball? The agents control the money. So you get a player x, y, z and his agent says, I want you to do this and do that, it’s just, they’re too many restrictions on you that baseball is going to have to weather the storm.
You know what I said a long time ago, when they started going to pitch counts? I said, ‘Why don’t you pitch three innings, three innings, and three innings, and then you pitch every third day?’ Three innings, three innings, three innings, and then your bullpen comes in and your starter goes three the next guy goes three; the bullpen goes one, one, one. You may have to have a fifteen man staff, but it may be better than doing what they’re doing now with pitchers going five innings.
MMO: That’s interesting, that sounds similar to what MLB Network broadcaster Brian Kenny speaks of in his book, Ahead of the Curve, about bullpenning. Do you think that’s something teams could eventually turn to in the future?
Tommy: I don’t know, I don’t know. You have to experience it, and if you haven’t experienced it you can’t go, oh well, you’re going to do this, because you don’t know what it’s like to pitch. It’s one thing to say we’re going to follow this or we’re going to do that. I know a lot of people are getting on the Dodgers, I live out here in Southern California about how the manager of the Dodgers manages the game. And a lot of my friends back in New York get on (Joe) Girardi for the way he manages.
They don’t manage the way that Joe Torre used to. They manage the way analytics tells them to manage. I said this when I managed in the minor leagues, I told the Yankee minor league officials I think we’re doing it backwards. You bring a righty in to face a righty, they don’t have good breaking balls. Generally, the second best pitch that these guys have is a changeup. I said, ‘Why don’t you try with the opposites? A righty comes in to face a lefty because his second best pitch is his changeup going down and away from a left-handed hitter, and the lefties down and away from a right-handed hitter.’ They said, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”
That was as far as it went. They flushed it down the toilet when they took their morning dump.
MMO: Talk to me about the lead-up to the surgery and what Dr. Frank Jobe had talked to you about prior?
Tommy: We tried everything, in fact, the trainer with the Dodgers taped my arm up. He taped my arm like you would a sprained ankle, you know to keep the elbow closed. It was too far gone and Dr. Jobe and I sat down and the biggest thing Dr. Jobe was worried about was not me pitching again but my wife was pregnant with our first child, in fact, he was born two days after my surgery.
His thing was do you have means to take care of your family, because this probably is not going to work. That was his sole concern, not if I was going to pitch again but if I had the means of support to take care of my family and care for them. I said, ‘Yeah I’ve got it,’ and we sat down and I told him, ‘Dr. Jobe if you do your job, I will MORE than do my job.’
He told me forty percent of this surgery is on him, sixty percent is on me. That’s when I told him, ‘I’m more than willing to do my job. If it takes a years, whatever it takes I will work and work and work to come back to pitch in the major leagues again.’
That’s what I wanted to do ever since I was a little boy of seven – eight years-old back in Terre Haute, Indiana.
MMO: Are you proud of the legacy you have with the surgery?
Tommy: Absolutely. People think I named it, they think that I have the underwear line, too. But that’s not me, it’s some guy named Patterson that has taken Tommy John’s name, but, be that as it may, Tony Soprano would never have let that guy do that I can tell you that.
Dr. Jobe coined the phrase Tommy John surgery. He would go out and give talks and he said, “I just got tired of calling it what it was, ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery with the palmerous longous tendon.” And then he said he started saying the surgery I did on Tommy John and then it was Tommy John surgery, and that stuck.
Tommy John surgery, because all the surgeons knew what Tommy John surgery was.
MMO: You got to play for two legendary managers in Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin, can you talk about the two?
Tommy: Tommy Lasorda was a great, great guy to play for. You just wanted to go to the ballpark everyday. If Lasorda said, T.J. I need you to go clean toilets tonight and that’s going to help us win, I would clean the toilets because I loved Tommy.
Billy Martin, I would rather not talk about Billy Martin. Billy didn’t like me, and I didn’t like Billy. In fact, I was sitting there, my family was, one spring training with some friends. Billy and Art Fowler and all of these guys that hung on and buy him drinks and get him out of fights or whatever and I’m pitching a spring training game. And Billy said, “How the f*** does this guy win? He’s got nothing.” When your manager says that about the number one pitcher on the team, how can you pitch for the guy?
Billy was for Billy.
MMO: When you look back on your 26-year career, what moments stand out for you the most?
Tommy: Two games. (First) the 1977 playoffs. Dodgers vs Phillies, Game four on a Saturday night. Dodgers are up 2-1 and it’s pouring down rain at Veterans Stadium. Steve Carlton vs Tommy John. I pitched probably the best game I’ve ever pitched in my life, for the way I pitched against a great Philly ball club with good hitting. I mean, when I say rain it was just a steady rain, and how they didn’t stop the game and cover the field or whatever, I don’t know. I beat the Phillies 4-1, the best game I ever pitched.
The next game that I recall, I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was the playoffs in 1981 and my son Travis had fallen out of a third story window earlier that summer. He was in a coma for seventeen days and (George) Steinbrenner asked him to throw out the first pitch that night. Well I’m pitching the ballgame and I can’t go out to the mound with him because I have to get myself ready for the game. I asked Reggie Jackson to go out because Reggie came to the hospital four or five times while he was in the hospital, of the thirty days he was in the hospital. And Reggie said, “You mean me escort them out there?” So after Travis threw a strike to Rick Cerone, Reggie picked him up and held him up and turned him around and whatever the count was, 60,000, chanting “Tra-vis, Tra-vis!”
That was the second greatest game I was ever involved in.
MMO: Thank you for your time today, Mr. John. It was great speaking with you.
Tommy: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Follow Tommy John on Twitter, @TommyJohn288