5 for Friday: Tommy John, 40 years after the surgery that saved his career

Former Yankees pitcher Tommy John, at 46, pitching in his final big league season in 1989 — 15 years after a ground-breaking procedure saved his career.

David Madison/Getty Images

You could make a reasonably compelling argument that former big-league pitcher Tommy John has had the most interesting career in baseball history: Enters the league at 20. Wins 124 games with 28 shutouts and an ERA under 3.00 before he’s 32. Then he blows out his elbow, which can only be fixed by a tendon replacement surgery that’s never been done before.

And not only does John fully recover the use of his left pitching arm, he goes on to win 164 more games in his career, tossing more than 2,500 additional innings with a better-than-league-average ERA+ of 107. He finally retired at 46, winning one fewer game after the surgery that bears his name than the great Sandy Koufax won in his entire career. And though not in the Hall of Fame, John does rank among the top 50 all-time in pitcher bWAR.

Today, John is 71 years old and living in Watertown, N.Y., and with the 40th anniversary of John’s career-saving surgery coming up next month, FOXSports.com spoke with the former hurler by phone for this week’s 5 For Friday. He was home recovering from a recent hip replacement — yep, Tommy John had a surgery that was not, in fact, Tommy John Surgery — but took some time to reflect on his most unlikely longevity in baseball, how pitchers are used today and the recent passing of Frank Jobe, the doctor whose ground-breaking procedure saved John’s career and that of so many others over the past four decades.

1. MALINOWSKI: So you’re 31 years old, you’ve got a pretty good career that’s only getting better, and now it’s 1974 and you’re facing a choice between possibly continuing your career with a radical new surgery that’s never been attempted and definitely never playing again. Is that a harder decision than one might think, given the relative mystery behind the procedure?

JOHN: Well, the thought process was, "Do you want to play baseball, or do you want to go back home to Terre Haute, Indiana, and sell cars at your friend’s dealership?" And as much as I love my friends in Terre Haute, I wanted to keep playing baseball, and that was the only option I had. So it was really a no-brainer.

I was the first one. (Frank Jobe, who performed the surgery) just went line by line, this is what we’re going to do. He said, "I won’t do it until I have these doctors in the operating room with me." I said, “Why?” He said, "Because I’ve never done this on a pitcher’s elbow, and I really don’t know what I’m doing. And so I need as much medical help as I can get." And when he told me that, I knew right then that he was the absolute perfect doctor because all he was doing was admitting that he was human and there were things out there that he may not be able to overcome, and that’s fine. My response to him was, “If you do your job, I will more than do my job.” He told me that he could only do about 30, maybe 40 percent of the operation and the rest was up to me, the rehab.

The other thing he said that made more sense — and I’ve never heard anybody say this, except the orthopedic surgeon who just got through doing my hip — was after I asked, "What should I do after?" And he said, "Listen to your body. Your body will tell you what it needs." Nowadays, guys have no idea what that verbiage means. They can only go out and someone says, "OK, your first day back, you throw 17 pitches at this distance and so many at this distance and then you’re done." And I’ve asked some guys, "What if you listen to your body?" They’re like, "What do you mean, listen to my body? No, I follow the guy who’s never ever pitched who says this is what you do."

As archaic as we were back then, probably the most successful Tommy John surgery was the first one, was mine. And I say that because when I came back, I pitched 13 years post-op. And I never missed a start in 13 years.

2. MALINOWSKI: When I spoke with Leo Mazzone, we talked about the rise in ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries and he talked about the scourge of velocity, how it was one word that he never used in all his years as a pitching coach. What’s your view on these kinds of injuries becoming more common, and what ought we be looking at to try and prevent them, to promote long and healthy careers?

JOHN: Leo and I come from the same school. Leo was mentored by Johnny Sain, and Johnny was my pitching coach my last year with the White Sox before I was traded. Johnny wanted us to throw every day, throw every day, throw every day. And I was from the school that, no, there’s only so many bullets in your shoulder. When you’re out of bullets, you’re out of beer.

Then when I had the surgery, I had to throw every day because that was the only way we knew how to get our arms stronger. And I found the more I threw, the better my arm felt. I ran into Johnny broadcasting back in Charlotte, and I apologized to him in front of all of the press and everybody. I said, "I thought you were so full of crap back then, but because I had to do what I had to get back pitching, you were absolutely right on." We need to throw more. Not pitch more. Throw more. And not long throwing. Long throwing does nothing but make you throw the ball long. You need to pitch from a specific distance to a target over home plate and all of a sudden you would find guys throwing just as hard but all of a sudden they’re practicing control, they’re practicing where they want to place the ball. And that’s not done anymore. It’s not done. You’ll see catchers sit outside and you’ll see balls thrown up and in. You’ll see the catcher set up inside and you’ll see balls low and away. Guys can’t throw where they’re looking anymore.

The worst thing that ever happened to baseball was in 1975. I was rehabbing, but I would work out in the afternoon during batting practice. When the game started, I would go back into the stands and I would chart the game. And (Dodgers general manager) Al Campanis bought a radar gun. The next year, I’m coming back and my second start in spring training, I pitched five innings against the Houston Astros. I strike out 10 batters in five innings. I give up some runs, I give up some hits, but I had good stuff, and I’m thinking, Boy, I feel pretty good.

Dixie Walker comes down and in his high-pitched, Birmingham-ese, Alabaman accent, he says, "Boy, you better get a little more velocity on that fastball!" He said I was only doing 87 and I topped out at 89 miles an hour. I said, "OK, here’s the deal: You go back up and tell that fat Greek, Al Campanis, that I will throw exactly the same speed I threw in 1974, before I got hurt, if he can tell me what I used to throw." And Dixie looked at me and he started laughing. He said, "How would he know?" I said, "Exactly. What you’ve done, Dixie, is you’ve put an instrument in the hands of somebody who doesn’t know crap about pitching, and now all of a sudden they’re going to say I’m not a good pitcher because I wasn’t throwing hard."

The object of pitching is to get batters out. Not to throw the ball 96 miles an hour. … If you get batters out, you’re good, and if you don’t get batters out, you’re not good.

The object of pitching is to get batters out. Not to throw the ball 96 miles an hour. If they would ever go back — but you’ll never do it, because of the sabermetricians and all that, it would skew all their numbers — if they would ever go back to the idea of, if you get batters out, you’re good, and if you don’t get batters out, you’re not good. And I don’t care if you throw the ball 100 mph — if you can’t get anybody out, go back home. Go find something else to do. But if you throw 88 mph and you get batters out, you can pitch.

What the radar gun has done, it’s trickled down into colleges. it’s trickled down into high school. It’s trickled down into travel ball. To get into college and be scouted by major league teams, you have to throw a number. I told a scout once, “Those numbers, they’re fictitious." He said, "Tommy, I know that. but I won’t have a job if I recommend drafting kids that don’t throw hard." I said, "So you’re going to take your integrity in baseball and chuck it under the rug just for the sake of some general manager, scouting director or somebody else who says pitchers have to throw 94 and above?" And he said, "Basically, yes. I like the job. I like the money."

And that’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to baseball, when the radar gun was brought into it, because it’s given people that don’t know squat about pitching something to measure a pitcher on that is meaningless. Now that doesn’t mean if a guy throws hard and he can pitch, he isn’t going to be good.

It’s like, to hit the ball a long way in golf doesn’t mean you’re a good golfer. It just means you can hit the ball a long way.

3. MALINOWSKI: What has your relationship been like with other ballplayers who have had the procedure? In some ways, they kind of owe you a debt of gratitude, as the "guinea pig."

JOHN: To tell you the truth, the guys who are going to have the surgery, I’ve never gotten a phone call from anybody. Never. Mine was prehistoric. Theirs is 21st century, and that’s the whole thing. I may see somebody who’s had the surgery while at a golf tournament or something. 

But if I were having the surgery now, and I was apprehensive about what was going on, I would try to find as many pitchers that had the surgery and came back successfully and ask them what pitfalls there are and what I should look for. What should I do, and what should I not do? That’s what I would do because that’s the way I pitched. I wanted to get as much information as I could in my head, so I could formulate a game plan.

4. MALINOWSKI: We’re coming up on the 40th anniversary of the surgery. Did you have any appreciation at the time for what might come out of it? You knew that it had never been done before, but that it would change sports medicine in sweeping ways must’ve seemed kind of far out.

Never in my wildest dreams would I think that the surgery would be so revolutionary until it got to be where so many guys were having it.

JOHN: I think it was The Washington Post, and I forget who the writer was — it wasn’t Tom Boswell — but it was somebody who wrote an article on the surgery, and they had a timeline and it started in 1974 (one surgery), 1977 (one surgery), 1978 (three surgeries), and then 1979, boom, and it just kept going up year by year, and then when you got down into the 2000s, there were 30, 40, 50, 60. Never in my wildest dreams would I think that the surgery would be so revolutionary until it got to be where so many guys were having it.

Yu Darvish came up with the idea of having six-man staffs, like they do in Japan. There’s one day off a week, and each guy pitches one day. My thinking would be, because you’re limiting the guys to 100 pitches or 110 pitches, cut it back to 90 pitches and go with four-man staffs, where you’ve got four pitchers going every four days. You have more guys in the bullpen, and guys will get more starts. Of course, if he’s got a good game going and he’s mowing ’em down, boom, boom, boom, the guy throws a bit more, and the next game you cut his pitches back. But if you were ever to do that, my God, the Scott Borases and all the agents that have all these pitchers with multi-million-dollar contracts, they would be hurling lawsuits on these general managers and everybody.

I think you’ll see Yu Darvish’s six-man staff rather than the four-man staff. And there’s only one manager in baseball with balls enough to try it. And that’s Buck Showalter.

5. MALINOWSKI: Frank Jobe, who developed and performed Tommy John surgery, passed away just a few months ago. What kind of a person was he, and what was your relationship like with him through the years?

JOHN: He was our team doctor, our team orthpoedic, when I came over to the Dodgers in 1972. He took bone chips out of my arm and reattached the flexor mass in my elbow. You know the biggest thing he was worried about in 1974? Not if the surgery was going to be a success or if it was going to make a name for him or whatever, but my wife at the time was pregnant with our first child, and Tammy was born two days after the surgery. She was born on the 27th of September. He was more concerned as to how I was going to take care of my family financially if and when the surgery didn’t work. Not about, well, we got to worry about getting you back out there and letting you do this and do that. It was, are you going to be able to take care of your family? That’s what kind of a man he was. He was probably one of the most genuine people you have ever been around in your life. And he was just a very good man with a good heart, a very big heart. 

I got a chance to see him about six weeks before he passed away. I was out in Palm Springs visiting friends, and the PGA Tour was nearby, playing the Humana Challenge, and he was there. One of the caddies was staying at my friend’s house, and he says, "Oh, I was in the workout trailer and Dr. Jobe was there and I mentioned to him that I was staying in the house that Tommy John was staying at." And Dr. Jobe said, "You tell him he better get his butt up here and see me."

So the next day, I went out there and my girlfriend and I spent about 90 minutes laughing and telling stories and reminiscing. Billy Horschel was in there listening to some of our stories, and he’s just shaking his head, saying, "You’re kidding me. You guys did that? Oh my God." We shook hands, and we hugged. God, he was so frail at the time, and I told my girlfriend, "You have met one of the most godly men you will ever meet in your life." And it was about six weeks later, we found out that he passed.

I’ve got to believe some orthopedic out there would’ve tried it, but this is how Dr. Jobe explained it to me: The technique is sound. He said, "I’ve done tendon transplants before, but it’s been on polio patients in their knees and in their ankles." The other doctor that he wanted for the surgery was a hand specialist. And they do a lot of tendon transplants in the hand and wrist, but that’s why he wanted him there. So it wasn’t like Jobe had never done it. He had done it, but never in the elbow of someone who uses his arm to make a living.

You can follow Erik Malinowski, who still has all his original ligaments and tendons but can’t pitch worth a lick, on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at erik.malinowski@fox.com.