College

Thursday, Feb 06 2014 11:00 PM

Q&A: Tommy John discusses injury, surgery and amazing recovery

BY JEFF EVANS Californian staff writer jevans@bakersfield.com

Cal State Bakersfield is hosting its inaugural Hot Stove Dinner Saturday at 5:30 p.m., at the Kern County Fairgrounds with Tommy John the featured guest.

John, 70, a left-handed pitcher, won 288 games in a 26-year major league career from 1963-1989, but is best known for "Tommy John surgery." He was baseball's first player to undergo the procedure in which the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow was replaced by a tendon from elsewhere in the body.

Since John's surgery on Sept. 24, 1974, thousands of athletes have undergone that career-saving procedure.

John accepted an invitation to speak at Saturday's dinner from Bakersfield's George Culver. They were teammates with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1973 and also were minor leaguers together while in the Cleveland Indians' organization in the early 1960s.

John won 20 games three times and was a four-time All-Star. After sitting out the 1975 season recovering from the surgery, John won 164 games over the next 14 seasons. At the time of his retirement, John's 26-year major league career was the longest of any player in big league history. Nolan Ryan (27 seasons) now holds that record.

John, who pitched for six big league teams, spoke to The Californian on Thursday.

Do you do these type of events often?

Yeah, I do a lot. I talk about how I got started in baseball and some of the things I learned, and some of the things my dad taught me that had nothing to do with baseball. I'll talk about a half-hour and then open it up to questions.

You won 288 games but are best known for your link to the elbow surgery. Are you happy about that?

Sure. Even if I won 300 to 340 games, I'd be known for the surgery. The surgery will be there forever. Last year I think 125 to 130 players with Tommy John surgery were playing in the major leagues. And that will go up exponentially because all these kids 15, 16, 17, 18 and in college are having it and they will go on to play in pro ball.

How did your injury occur?

It was a game against Montreal (on July 17, 1974), in the third inning. Hal Breeden was at the plate. I went to turn the ball down to sink it and I had the worst pain in my arm I had ever felt. I threw one more pitch with the same pain and walked off the mound.

You were 13-3 at the time. Were you throwing the best in your career at the time?

Yeah. I had thrown pretty good with the White Sox (1965-71) but they had a horrible defensive team. The Dodgers needed starting pitching and Ken Boyer went over and said they should get this kid with the White Sox, that with a good infield he'd win 20 games. I was traded there and had a good year in '72, then I went 16-7 and 13-3. I kept getting better and better and better.

How did the idea come up to replace a tendon in the elbow with one from another part of the body?

Dr. (Frank) Jobe had done these things before in polio patients, and it had allowed them to walk again, so it wasn't brand new. But it was brand new for pitchers. It had never been done with someone who puts so much stress on an elbow like a pitcher does.

Did Dr. Jobe spell out everything to you about the surgery beforehand?

Yep. He told me, 'You don't have to have the surgery. You'll be fine. You can do everything as a father. But if you don't have it, you won't pitch Major League Baseball again.' I wanted to pitch in the big leagues again. I had no recourse. If I wanted to pitch, I had to have it done.

What did Dr. Jobe tell you about the chance of success for the surgery?

He said the chance was 1 in 100, or 2 in 100, because he honestly said he didn't know what would happen. Now it's 90 percent successful.

What were your own expectations about recovering?

I was optimistic because I knew how hard I would work to come back. If it took one year, two years, three years -- whatever it took I would put in the necessary work.

It's been reported that your Dodger teammate Mike Marshall helped re-work your delivery after the surgery.

No. That's false. Red Adams was our pitching coach and I told him to make sure I was throwing the ball the same way from the same angle that I was before. You didn't want the Dizzy Dean effect where a guy comes in, has an injury, gives in and changes something, hurts his arm and is done.

What is your career highlight?

After surgery, pitching for 14 more years and never missing a start.

On a recent TV interview, you said you thought the 288 wins and the added impact of your name attached to the surgery should be worthy of Hall of Fame membership. Your thoughts?

I stand by that. The thing is, I have no control over it. I can only worry about the things I can control.

Excluding yourself, who is the most deserving Hall of Fame candidate not yet inducted?

Jack Morris should be in. I think (Steve) Garvey and (Davey) Concepcion will get some support. But there are some guys who were really good but just didn't play long enough, like (Don) Mattingly.

Should Marvin Miller, the former head of the Players Association who led the charge for baseball free agency, get in?

Absolutely. The three people who changed the face of baseball: Jackie Robinson for ending the color barrier; Marvin for the advent of free agency; and Dr. Jobe. But as long as there are executives that vote (for non-player candidates), Marvin Miller will never get in.

What was the best part of being a major league player?

The salary. If I could take HGH and be able to play now, I'd be out there in a heartbeat. If you're left-handed with a body temperature of 98.6, you're worth $3 million.

Will baseball have another 300-game winner?

Probably not, because they don't pitch enough games. They would have to pitch 25 years and win 12 to 15 games a year. Nobody will throw that long. The days of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz are gone.

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