Mar 7, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
They call it “Tommy John surgery,” and the left-hander who first had his namesake procedure performed on his elbow back in 1974 will forever be immortalized as a baseball pioneer.
Really, though, we should forever refer to it as “Frank Jobe surgery,” because the Los Angeles orthopedist who brilliantly conjured up the ligament reconstruction surgery and then successfully pulled it off on John and allowed the pitcher to resurrect an otherwise lost career was the true visionary.
“Baseball lost a great man and Tommy John lost a great friend,” John said in a statement Thursday night upon learning of Jobe’s death at 88. “There are a lot of pitchers in baseball who should celebrate his life and what he did for the game of baseball.”
A lot? That doesn’t do Jobe enough justice. More like a thousand. That’s how many pitchers have had Tommy John surgery over the last four decades, the vast majority of them making a complete recovery and returning to pitch effectively, and in many cases even better than before.
There isn’t a franchise in baseball that hasn’t been profoundly affected by Jobe, and the Nationals sit very near the top of that list.
What would Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann be doing today if not for Frank Jobe? They certainly wouldn’t be anchoring one of the sport’s best rotations. What about Lucas Giolito and Sammy Solis? Their careers would have ended before either prospect ever had the chance to climb the professional ladder. And what of Christian Garcia, who incredibly had the surgery twice yet still made his major-league debut for the Nats in 2012.
Tommy John surgery has been performed so many times and so perfected by those who have taken the baton from Jobe over the years — including James Andrews, Tim Kremchek and the late Lewis Yocum — that we now tend to think of it as a routine procedure. In reality, it’s incredibly complex.
When John’s ulnar collateral ligament snapped while delivering a pitch for the Dodgers in 1974, the lefty pleaded with team doctors to find a way to get him back on a major-league mound. Jobe, the club’s official surgeon, came up with a revolutionary idea: Take a healthy tendon from John’s right arm and weave it in a figure eight shape through two holes drilled through the elbow bone, creating a new (and stronger) ligament in the process.
At the time, Jobe gave John a 1-in-100 chance of making it back. John spent more than a year rehabbing, then returned to the Dodgers in 1976 better than ever.
From 1971-74, his last four seasons pre-surgery, John posted a 3.10 ERA. In his first four seasons post-surgery, John’s ERA was 3.02. Pre-surgery, he started 318 games and notched 124 wins. Post-surgery, he started 382 games and won 164 times.
And that’s when the procedure was still experimental, with no established rehab road map.
Nowadays, the surgery has been perfected and the recovery process is well-documented. Pitchers all begin throwing around the 4-month mark. They return to a big-league mound in 12 months.
Jobe gave John a 1-in-100 chance of recovery. Now, pitchers have a 92-in-100 chance.
The entire baseball world will mourn Jobe’s death over the next few days, and hopefully more people will have a greater appreciation for this doctor’s contribution to the game.
Here’s an even better idea, though: Give Dr. Frank Jobe a plaque in Cooperstown. Include on it a list of every pitcher whose career he saved with a revolutionary surgery that today is as much a part of baseball’s fabric as pine tar and batting gloves.
Think about how big that plaque would need to be.
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