Another Comeback for Tommy John : Change in Delivery Helps Yankee Left-Hander to 3-0 Start
It’s been said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but there’s nothing that says you can’t remind him about the ones he used to know.
If Lorne Greene made commercials for baseball, Tommy John would probably be in the background throwing a ball. John, you see, is 43 years old. And that’s about 100 in baseball years.
When John was released by Oakland last season, you figured he was going to curl up in front of the fireplace and never be heard from again. His fabled sinker had lost its bite and he was reduced to spotting 80 m.p.h. fastballs and trying to catch the corners with flat breaking pitches.
But John, who is the first and most celebrated member of Dr. Frank Jobe’s Bionic Elbow Club, has this way of making comebacks . . . again and again. He did it after the innovative 1974 operation to repair a ruptured ligament in his elbow. He did it after the Angels released him 1985. And he’s done it again this year.
John convinced an old friend, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, to give him a no-strings-attached tryout this spring. When he showed up at camp, John sat down with New York pitching coaches Sammy Ellis and Mark Connor to try and figure out what happened to the sinker that had been frustrating hitters in both leagues for the better part of 22 years.
“After the first or second time I threw down there, Sam came to the conclusion that I was getting around the ball, throwing from the side of the ball.”
John’s arm position was fine, but his hand was cocked to the side and his breaking ball was moving laterally instead of dropping the way it once did. The correction was simple. And it made a world of difference.
“You could see it in the spin immediately,” John said. “The spin was entirely different.”
Actually, it was the same old spin. And John is loving that spin again. He’s 3-0 with a 2.37 earned-run average in four starts with New York, once again confounding guys half his age.
“Last year, I didn’t mind facing T.J. that much,” Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly said. “His breaking pitches weren’t very sharp. But this season’s a different story.
“Sunday in Oakland, the guys who got to first sounded just like we used to when T.J. was going good. He never looks like he’s throwing that well and everyone’s always saying, ‘How can he get away with that bleep he’s throwing up there?’ ”
John went eight innings against the A’s, struck out seven and got 14 groundball outs. One player, Mike Davis, flied out. Two A’s were caught stealing.
Three weeks ago against Minnesota, he got 17 of 21 outs on the ground.
“The ball’s sinking again, he’s changing speeds with it, getting it over and getting people out,” Yankee Manager Lou Pinella said. “Truthfully, he was way down the depth chart when spring training began. Then, all of sudden, he was pitching really well.
“He hurt his back the last start or he might of made the club right out of camp. The big thing was, we saw enough good things to warrant asking him to keep working out.”
John stayed in Florida and stayed in shape. Then, on May 2, he was called up when Ed Whitson went on the disabled list.
Otherwise, John might have thrown his last pitches on the diamond at Villa Park High School where he played in a Sunday league for the Orange County Rebels last winter.
Instead, he’ll wind up his career wearing pinstripes in Yankee Stadium.
“I’m shutting it down for good after this year,” John said as he sat in front of his cubicle at the Anaheim Stadium visitors’ clubhouse. “I’ve got a lot of things to do, as a father and a husband. I don’t think I’ll find another summer job that pays this well, though.”
Maybe not. But Steinbrenner has offered him a position in the Yankee front office and, as John puts it, “George has a way of making some very interesting offers.”
This one is interesting enough that the Johns are selling their home in Anaheim Hills and moving East.
“Maybe somebody like Wally Joyner would like to buy it,” John said, “somebody who’ll be here for a while.”