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A long overdue salute to Dr. Frank Jobe, the inventor of Tommy John Surgery

When my father and I went to spring training two years ago, we decided to make a stop at Dodgertown to catch a game one last time before the club moved from their historic training complex in Vero Beach. It was going to be a unique experience, the Dodgers were running a split squad with Joe Torre and most of the club playing a few games in Japan, so left behind to manage the other half of the club was legendary manager Tommy Lasorda.

My father and I sat in the third row, behind home plate, and got to catch Lasorda joking around with a few kids who had no idea who he was. It was great to see an amazing man enjoying himself in the captains seat for a final time. Before the first pitch the Dodgers PA announcer came on and told us to welcome a special guest, Frank Jobe. An elderly man emerged from the dugout and slowly walked towards home plate, and waved to the crowd. A largely disinterested fan base continued on with their conversations, but my father broke from the pack. He stood up out of his seat, and began to yell at the top of his lungs:

“YOU BELONG IN THE HALL OF FAME! YOU BELONG IN THE HALL OF FAME! THANK YOU!”

My dad, a baseball historian and lifelong fan of the game knew who Frank Jobe was, but very few others did, which is sad considering the incredible impact the man has had on the game. Jobe of course is a surgeon, the surgeon who invented the well known Tommy John surgery.

Before Jobe resurrected John’s career, any injury to a pitcher’s elbow was considered a death sentence. Pitchers put a lot of strain on their elbow when they throw, most notably on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). It used to be that any UCL injury was a career ending one, almost exclusively, but Jobe’s groundbreaking procedure fixed that all by taking a less used ligament from somewhere else in the body to replace the damaged UCL.

Unlike shoulder surgeries, which to this day still can take years and many tries to recover from, Tommy John surgery makes pitchers arms just as good as new, and allows pitchers to throw just as hard as they did before injury. Many pitchers who have received Tommy John surgeries early in their MLB tenure were able to have long unimpeded careers after only an 18-month recovery period. It has gotten to the point that pitchers and teams hope that when there is arm trouble it is a result of the elbow, not the shoulder.

While the surgery left Tommy John himself just short of reaching the Hall of Fame, the impact the surgery itself has had on the game is huge. In total 180 Major League baseball players have had the surgery, who otherwise would have likely not had careers if it weren’t for Jobe’s invention. Many believe pitchers like Sandy Koufax, who had a shortened career due to an elbow injury, would have been able to pitch much longer in the majors had the surgery existed then.  Koufax only pitched until he was 30 and baseball fans across the country were robbed of perhaps another decade of domination from the devastating lefty. But with Dr. Jobe’s surgery, we will never be left wondering “what if” when it comes to pitcher’s with elbow injuries.

Among the most notable pitchers whose career’s were saved due to Tommy John are Chris Carpenter, Billy Wagner, Randy Wolf, Kerry Wood, John Smoltz, Kenny Rogers, Matt Morris, Jimmy Key, Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, Erig Gagne, Eric Bedard, Patt Hentgen and A.J. Burnett. Notable position players include: Jose Canseco, Paul Molitor, Luis Gonzalez, Carlos Quintin, and Matt Holliday.

So thank you Dr. Jobe. Thank you for transforming the game for the better that so all of us can enjoy the pitchers who bring us to our feet in joy just a little bit longer. Thank you saving the careers of many and for sharing your craft with doctors across the country so pitchers everywhere can receive the same treatment regardless of status. Thank you for your contributions which have unquestionably advanced the game.

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