Lewis Yocum, the famed orthopedic surgeon who performed surgeries on Nationals pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, and prolonged the careers of countless others in baseball, died this weekend of liver cancer, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim announced on Tuesday. He was 65.
Yocum was in his 36th season as the Angels team physician, and was among the elite sports surgeons and a leading expert in Tommy John surgery, the elbow ligament replacement surgery that has become commonplace across the sport. He performed the surgery on Zimmermann in 2009 and then Strasburg in 2010. Both have returned to elite levels following the procedures.
Yocum had reportedly been quietly dealing with his cancer and only three days ago did Zimmermann hear that the surgeon was in the hospital. He sent him a “get well” text message and heard that Yocum’s wife, Beth, was reading him the messages.
“He obviously saved my career,” Zimmermann said. “… I didn’t know how bad it was. I found out 10 minutes ago. He saved a lot of guys’ careers. He’s fixed a lot of guys. He did a lot for the game of baseball. A tough blow for all the younger pitchers who have to go through it. … He was a great guy. He saved my career. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Yocum also performed the Tommy John surgeries of Nationals’ 2012 first-round pick Lucas Giolito, left-hander Sammy Solis and countless others across the sport. Solis tweeted his condolences on Tuesday afternoon as the word of Yocum’s death spread: “Saddened to hear about Dr. Yocum’s passing. He did amazing work and got me playing again. RIP Doc.”
Added Manager Davey Johnson: “He’s been unbelievable with the Tommy John surgery. He’s done a bunch of our guys. He’s a legend. Doctors are such a big part. The [Robert] Kerlans first, then the [Frank] Jobes. I don’t think anybody in baseball has passed through without being in front of Yocum, Kerlan or Jobe, [James] Andrews. They’re just as much a part of the game as the players to keep us on the field.”
Second baseman Danny Espinosa went to Yocum this offseason for a second opinion on the torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Espinosa said his brother Brandon, also a baseball player, underwent two surgeries under Yocum’s care.
“It’s tough to hear his passing,” Espinosa said. “… I know how much he’s helped in the baseball community. What he has done for so many pitchers and so many ballplayers. It’s definitely not easy to take. The last thing I knew from him was he helped me out. He got me out, got me right and got me to his best physical therapist, and they got me in a position where he could get me going again and it’s definitely sad and a big loss for the baseball world.
“Everybody goes to him. Everybody I know in Southern California who plays ball went to him, whether it was the second opinion or the surgery, everybody also felt more comfortable when they went to Dr. Yocum.”
A stream of remembrances poured in from across baseball.
“Dr. Lewis Yocum was a giant in the field of sports medicine,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig said in a statement. “He was an invaluable resource to not only the Angels franchise but players throughout all of Major League Baseball, team physicians and the members of the Professional Baseball Athletics Trainers Society. All of our Clubs relied upon Dr. Yocum’s trusted opinion and judgment. Throughout the last 36 years, the lives and careers of countless players benefited from his pioneering expertise, and he made our game on the field better as a result.”
High profile agent Scott Boras, who represents Strasburg and Espinosa, said in a statement posted on his agency’s official Twitter account: “Dr. Yocum was a caring genius who had a profound impact on the game and its players. His plaque in the hall awaits.”
Yocum is survived by his wife and their two children.