August 2, 2011

BASEBALL: Former big leaguer, known for elbow surgery, visits Harold Alfond Fenway Park

By Travis Lazarczyk
Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- Wyatt Viles listened to every word Tommy John had to say. The 10-year old from Strong watched John cock his left arm in a throwing motion, then mimicked the motion as best he could, twisting his left hand so the baseball turned from his body, then twisting his hand towards himself as he threw.

click image to enlarge

TEACHING THE GAME: Former Major League Baseball pitcher Tommy John offers some pitching tips to Wyatt Viles, 10, of Strong, during a baseball academy Monday morning at Harold Alfond Fenway Park in Oakland. John, famous for the surgery performed on his left elbow, pitched 26 seasons in the majors.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

After the brief lesson, Viles was asked, "What do you know about Tommy John?"

"He was a Major League Baseball player," Viles said.

In this game of word association, reconstructive elbow surgery never occurred to Viles. That was something John found refreshing.

"These young kids, almost all of them, they have no idea that I ever played the game," John said.

John played the game at the highest level for 26 seasons for six Major League teams. John won 288 games, struck out 2,245 hitters and posted a career earned run average of 3.34. But now, he's known more for the elbow surgery that salvaged his career in the mid-1970s than for being one of the best left-handed starting pitcher of his era.

He's OK with it. He's happy to show off the long scar on his left elbow, possibly the most famous scar in sports history.

"I don't care. It could have been Tommy John hemorrhoid surgery. That would have been embarrassing," John said.

John was in Oakland on Monday to coach at a youth baseball clinic at Harold Alfond Fenway Park at Camp Tracy. He had just spent some time coaching at a clinic in New Jersey.

"We just had a one week camp. It's fun. I think the thing that these kids could probably do that would help out their baseball game is learn balance, learn strength. It takes strength, it takes coordination. Like this kid here," John said, pointing towards Viles, "is a little farther along then most of the kids. You can tell by the way he throws the ball he's farther along."

The surgery which now bears John's name is ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. The damaged elbow ligament is replaced by one from another part of the body. When Dr. Frank Jobe performed the surgery on John in 1974, nobody expected John, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, to make it back to the big leagues.

"It was over if I didn't have it done. When I opted to have the surgery, Dr. Jobe told me that I didn't have to have the surgery, but if I did not have it, I would never pitch in Major League Baseball again. He said 'That I can guarantee you,' " John said. "I said, 'If I have the surgery, will I be able (to pitch)?' He said 'I don't know. Probably not.' "

John missed the 1975 season, and returned to go 10-10 for the Dodgers in 1976. Between 1977 and 1980, John won at least 20 games three times, for the Dodgers in 1977 and for the New York Yankees in 1979 and 1980.

The surgery didn't make John a better pitcher, he said.

"I think after surgery, I played on better ballclubs, which makes you a better pitcher," John said.

When John had elbow reconstruction surgery, it was still an experimental procedure. Some teams, including the Boston Red Sox, he said, were reluctant to pursue him when he was a free agent after the 1978 season because of worries that his elbow would break down again.

"Once you get to a certain point, and you don't reinjure it, your chances of hurting your arm again are the same as this other guy hurting it the first time," John, who pitched for 14 seasons after the surgery and was 46 years old in his final season, said. "After surgery, I could throw the ball 90, 92 miles an hour if I wanted to throw it straight. But I never wanted the ball to be straight. Ever, ever, ever."

(Continued on page 2)

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