Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tommy John surgery

Every year, several pitchers come back from what's called "Tommy John surgery." The Twin's young phenom Francisco Liriano is one of them.

If you don't know who Tommy John was or what the surgery is, let me explain.

Tommy John was a solid, if unspectacular, pitcher for the Indians, White Sox, and Dodgers who, in 1974, blew out his elbow and changed baseball. That season, the lefty John was cruising along with a 13-3 record, on track for the best season of his career at age 31. Then he permanently damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm and hit the disabled list.

In the past, such an injury would have meant premature retirement. But John had the good fortune of being close to a true pioneer in orthopedic surgery, Dr. Frank Jobe. Jobe’s radical idea was to replace the damaged ligament with the healthy ligament from John’s right elbow.

It was a risky surgery, and Jobe laid odds on John’s recovery to pitch in the majors again at 1 in 100. Rehabilitation was grueling and took a full 18 months, but it was all worth it when John returned to the majors in 1976 literally better than ever.

He went just 10-10 that year, but in 1977, at the age of 34, he won 20 games for the first time ever and finished second in Cy Young Award balloting. He followed that season with win totals of 17, 21, and 22. He continued pitching until the age of 46 and finished his career with 288 victories.

Today, Tommy John surgery, as it’s known, occurs frequently enough that the recovery rate is about 85 to 90 percent and rehabilitation requires only about a year for pitchers and six months for position players. In fact, many pitchers discover they can throw harder than they could before the surgery (most likely as a result of all the strength training during the rehabilitation period, not as a result of the new elbow ligament).

It is an understatement to say that Tommy John surgery has saved the careers of countless pitchers, making baseball today a better game.

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