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Tommy John surgery: From cutting edge to commonplace

BaseballBill VeeckWorld War II (1939-1945)Los Angeles DodgersVin ScullyPittsburgh Pirates

PASADENA, Calif. — His career is dwarfed by his incision.

"It's the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction while using the Palmaris longus tendon," he said. "That's why they call it Tommy John surgery."

But it is actually the Frank Jobe surgery.

The Dodgers' orthopedist performed the first one in 1974 on John, who recovered to win 20 or more games in three different seasons. 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. He got 166 of his 288 career victories after exposing his left arm to a knife that never had gone exactly there before.

Last week, John introduced his doctor as Jobe was inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals by the Baseball Reliquary alongside pitchers Jim "Mudcat" Grant and Luis Tiant.

The Shrine recognizes baseball people — including Marvin Miller, Fernando Valenzuela and Bill Veeck — whose careers were too short or controversial to make the Cooperstown class but are often more influential.

Both John and Jobe deserve to enter the real Hall. There is no calculating the years, victories and money that they recovered for pitchers.

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 last 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 turned 87 last week, 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.

"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.'"

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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