Dr. Frank Jobe, Hall of Fame inductee, talks about Tommy John surgery
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - If these annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekends really are about Forever, honoring individuals who put a permanent imprint on the sport, then Saturday's acknowledgement of Dr. Frank Jobe was a suitable tribute.
The irony is that Jobe's enormous contribution -- the elbow ligament reconstruction named for its first patient, Tommy John -- might be considered something of a performance enhancement at a time when baseball is up to its eyebrows in the nefarious aspects of augmentation.
With baseball writers so suspicious of recent accomplishments that they failed to elect a single member to the Hall for the first time in 48 years, Tommy John surgery might strike some as building a better player through science.
"There's a myth out there that after Tommy John surgery, you can pitch better than you did before," said Jobe, now retired at 88 while his pioneering operation continues to proliferate. "Well, that's not true. All it does is put it back to where it was and, if they have a good rehab program, they may pitch better than they did just before they got hurt, when they were beginning to go downhill.
"In their mind, they think, 'I'm better than I ever was.' But they're not."
Jobe and John on Saturday spoke about the 1974 operation that allowed John, already a 31-year-old veteran, to pitch 14 more seasons in the big leagues, three times winning at least 20 games.
"He said, 'You don't need the surgery; you'll be fine,' " John related. "He said, 'You can play catch with your kids and throw batting practice to your kids, but you'll never be able to pitch major league baseball again.' I wanted to pitch major league baseball."
Jobe grafted a tendon from elsewhere in the body into the elbow, but he was unsure whether the transplanted tendon would be rejected as a foreign body "or would wear out and break loose. That's why I told him he had only about a 100-to-1 chance.
"This was in an age when surgery was just being developed for athletes," he said. "They weren't life-saving.
"I didn't do another one for two years, and then when he was pitching pretty well, we had Brent Strom come in.
" So I did another one, and another year went by and Tom Candiotti came in. He was just a Single-A player at the time, and I had to decide whether this should be done on everybody that had a torn ligament, because you can live without it. Or should it be done just on major league players?"
Candiotti convinced Jobe he was a big-league "prospect," and post-surgery, "he pitched for 10 years after that," Jobe said. "So I fixed a prospect."
Still, it was years before Jobe considered his invention anything great. And the downside now, he and John said, is that its availability can eliminate reasonable caution in young pitchers and their parents.
What John called the "epidemic" of kids from 12 to 17 pitching year-round means "they'll probably be seeing a doctor down the road to do Tommy John surgery.''
Said Jobe, "That's a sad thing."