The procedure known as Tommy John surgery has changed baseball for 37 years, ever since Frank Jobe performed the first ligament-replacement surgery on the left-handed pitcher for which the operation is named. A torn UCL was once a death sentence for pitchers’ careers. Tommy John surgery was once regarded as a risky, last-resort operation. It has become commonplace and, at the highest level of baseball, a virtually sure-fire means to restore a pitcher’s career.
“As long as it’s in the right hands,” said Tim Kremchek, a leading Tommy John practitioner, “the player has over a 95 percent chance of coming back.”
The surgery Strasburg underwent last year struck a devastating blow to the Nationals’ 2011 hopes and presented Strasburg a grueling year of rehabilitation. But because of the evolution and prevalence of Tommy John surgery, Strasburg will join the horde of major leaguers who have returned with a four-inch scar on the inside of their pitching elbow.
“I would never have thought it would happen,” said Jobe, the orthopedic surgeon who pioneered the surgery. “It’s been a very fortunate experience for me. It just turned out very well.”
Tommy John met Jobe in 1972. John was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers and needed bone chips removed from his left elbow. Jobe, then the Dodgers’ team physician, performed the surgery. They stayed in touch. Jobe performed an operation on John’s wife. A friendship formed.
Late in the summer of 1974, John felt a pain in his left elbow so severe he could no longer pitch. He learned he had snapped the ulnar collateral ligament. He went to Jobe.
Early in his career, Jobe had performed tendon grafts for children who had polio diagnosed. When he examined John’s torn ligament, the idea to perform a similar operation struck him.
“Immense creativity,” said Yocum, the surgeon who performed Strasburg’s operation and now practices with Jobe.
“Brilliant,” Kremchek said.
At the time, Jobe was confident but was not certain the idea would work.
“I trusted Jobe,” John said. “He was a friend. I knew he wouldn’t BS me. He would lay it on the table and tell me what was good for me. He told me, ‘You do not have to have the surgery. But if you don’t, you will never pitch again.’ I said, ‘Okay, if I have the surgery, what are the chances?’ He said, ‘You probably won’t pitch again.’ I wanted to play baseball. I would do whatever it took to play baseball again. So we had the surgery.”