Just Imagine If There Was No Tommy John Surgery

All of us as St. Louis Cardinals fans — actually, all of us as baseball fans — should be thankful for Dr. Frank Jobe, an orthopedic surgeon who died a few days ago at age 88. You may or may not have heard of him, but there’s no question you’ve heard of his greatest contribution to baseball: ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery, better known as Tommy John surgery.

collage-Tommy JohnThat surgery is something we as Cardinals fans are quite familiar with, isn’t it? Jason Motte is still recovering from undergoing the procedure last May.

And just imagine what the 2011 Cardinals pitching staff would have been if there were no Tommy John surgery and a pitcher’s career — as happened with Sandy Koufax — just ended because of elbow injuries.

Of course there already wasn’t Adam Wainwright that season, since he’d had Tommy John surgery in February. But there also wouldn’t have been Chris Carpenter (who had the surgery in 2007), Jaime Garcia (2008), Jake Westbrook (2008), Kyle McClellan (2005 — and remember how good he was in the starting rotation early that year?) and Octavio Dotel (2005).

Just imagine … no happy flights and magical September and October without them, and that’s just one Cardinals season.

Also just one team. Last July Will Carroll, an expert on sports injuries, published a study at Bleacher Report that indicated one-third of current MLB pitchers at the time had undergone Tommy John surgery.That was 124 of 360 pitchers and even Carroll was stunned at the high number. Here’s his full list of the 124, if you’re interested.

Not surprisingly, Carroll interviewed Dr. Jobe for his study.

Why is the number so high? Among the top doctors in sports today, there are theories. It starts with the top reason cited by Dr. Frank Jobe, the creator of Tommy John surgery.

“Overuse,” he said plainly.

Last year Dr. Jobe was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame for the development of the surgery, and John was there also to honor the man who saved and extended his career.

It was interesting to read just how that pioneering first surgery came about, which was detailed in Dr. Jobe’s obituary in the New York Times.

On a July night in 1974, Dr. Frank Jobe, the orthopedist for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium watching the ace left-hander Tommy John face the Montreal Expos.

In the third inning, John threw a pair of wild pitches and heard the sound of a “collision,” as he put it, coming from his arm. He had torn an elbow ligament, which almost certainly meant the end of a pitcher’s career.

But Dr. Jobe performed a pioneering operation, transplanting an unneeded tendon from John’s right wrist into his left elbow, where it functioned as a new ligament. John went on to win another 164 games over 14 seasons, retiring from the game at age 46.

Yet Dr. Jobe wasn’t just known for the elbow surgeries.

Dr. Jobe also performed groundbreaking shoulder surgery on the star Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser in 1990, developing a procedure that reduces trauma to tissue during the operation. Hershiser pitched for another decade, and Dr. Jobe’s shoulder procedure has been employed many times since.

When Hershiser returned to the mound at Dodger Stadium on May 29, 1991, he bowed his head in silent prayer, then placed his Dodger cap on his head and threw a salute to Dr. Jobe.

Hershiser said in a statement on Thursday that Dr. Jobe had changed his life and “gave me back my career” and that he “may have touched more wins and saves than anyone in baseball.”

Sometimes we tend to forget the physical demands and stress involved in the game of baseball, especially with pitchers. The unnatural motion of throwing a baseball 90 or more miles per hour hundreds of times during only one game obviously can take a huge toll on an arm, an elbow, a shoulder.

Thankfully, great advances in medical treatment — especially from Dr. Frank Jobe — give us the enjoyment of seeing our favorite players continue to perform. And we don’t have to imagine what baseball would be like without Tommy John surgery.


Christine Coleman is the lead writer for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Follow her on Twitter, @CColeman802, or email aaronmilesfastball@gmail.com. Also follow @AMilesFastball for the latest updates and like us on Facebook if you don’t already.

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