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Operation Rearm Was Big Winner

Which non-player in baseball history made the greatest contribution to the game in terms of victories, playoffs, pennants, World Series he was directly responsible for, part of by proxy?

Connie Mack? Casey Stengel? No, I’m talking of a man who never wore a major league uniform, never managed, never sat in a front office, made a trade, wrote out a lineup or hit a fungo.

I almost said, “never changed a pitcher,” but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. He changed a pitcher, all right, and thereby hangs the tale.

In the fall of 1974, Tommy John was the most forlorn athlete you will ever see. His team, the Dodgers, were in the World Series, but he wasn’t. He moped around the fringes, his arm cast in a leather sling, his chin drooping.

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That year, he had been off to the best start ever in his career. He had 13 wins in 16 starts. He might have been on a Cy Young pace when suddenly his arm snapped like an old guitar. The question was not whether he could ever pitch with it again, but whether he could ever tie his shoelaces or comb his hair.

A dozen Connie Macks can’t do anything about that. Tommy didn’t even need an agent anymore. Who needs an agent to sell insurance?

What Tommy needed was a miracle. He needed a new arm. Arms are not regenerative. They come two-to-a-customer and they’re not issued or hinged to throw curveballs.

Tommy’s arm hung down like a broken clock when he went into the orthopedic clinic of Drs. Bob Kerlan and Frank Jobe. Most people thought he would be better off at Lourdes.

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The sports world had reason to become used to surgical wonders performed by the Kerlan-Jobe complex but they couldn’t raise the dead.

And the betting was, Tommy’s arm had gone to its last resting place, that great bullpen in the sky.

Baseball had seen this scenario before. Guys whose arms have no pulse in them try everything this side of faith healing to get the fastball back in them, but they usually come up 20 m.p.h. short and can’t get anybody out any more.

Which is why, by the time Dr. Jobe got through operating, the game felt as if Tommy John had gone to a laboratory in Transylvania, not Inglewood, for his operation.

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And this was really Dr. Frankenstein Jobe who did the work. He didn’t operate on the arm, he built a new one. It was joked that if you lifted it up to your ear, you could hear wolves howl.

Pete Rose said it best: “I know they had to give Tommy John a new arm. But did they have to give him Koufax’s?”

Tommy John and his electric arm stunned baseball. He was 33 years old when he returned to the game after surgery and a year-and-a-half in therapy.

He had won 124 games up till then. He was to win 162 afterward.

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He had never been in a playoff or World Series before his surgery. He was in them almost every year thereafter--six playoffs and three World Series.

John is pitching yet. He will be 46 in May. The venerable Satchel Paige once wrote a book, “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.” T.J. could write the sequel.

It may be the most extraordinary accomplishment in sports medicine in baseball history. Tommy John had never won more than 14 to 16 games a season with his old arm. With his new one, he was a 20-game winner three times and he won 80 games in one 4-year stretch.

The older he got, the younger the arm got. John’s favorite routine was to tell the press, he was 40, but his arm was only 9 years old and getting smarter by the minute.

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It is a story to make the scalp prickle. T.J. cannot swat airplanes out of the sky with his arm, or stop bullets, or lift oil trucks--but he can throw ground balls with it.

Lots of pitchers coddle their arms. Shake hands with their other hand, keep a heat pack (or ice) on it overnight. They care for it the way a frontiersman took care of his rifle.

Tommy John treats his as an equal partner. It may outlive him. He may want to leave it to someone like a family heirloom. It’s probably got a thousand more double-play balls left in it and 500 taps back to the mound.

It’s the most dramatic surgical triumph of Centinela Hospital Medical Center’s Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic, but hardly the only one.

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At a seminar at the Sportscasters monthly meeting at Lakeside Country Club Thursday, Dr. Jobe was explaining what has happened to sports orthopedists in the past decade or so.

“We’ve improved socially,” he announced wryly. “We used to be the bag ladies of medicine. The neurosurgeons were at the top of the hierarchy. After all, they operated on the brain--and the brain is where the soul is, right? The cosmetic surgeons were the stars. Internists were tolerated. We were the ones who put the lights out and locked up. But all that’s changing. A neurosurgeon even spoke to me in the hall only the other day.”

Put in Dr. Kerlan: “When my father was a doctor, if a sports person came to him and said, ‘My elbow hurts when I hit a tennis ball,’ my father would say, ‘Well, then, stop hitting a tennis ball.’ ”

When Tommy John came to Dr. Jobe with his arm hanging by one frayed strand of a tendon, Dr. Jobe did not tell him, “Stop throwing baseballs.”

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Recalls Jobe: “I told him, we’ve never done this (procedure) before. We make no guarantees. But Tommy insisted. ‘We have to do something.’ ”

He created an arm that can win 162 games practically by itself. I wonder if he can create one that can write columns--or break 80--by itself?

Either way, since Tommy John--or Dr. Jobe’s arm--won all those games in Yankee Stadium, Dr. Jobe should at least be one of those monuments in the outfield there. With a slug line for most-games-won by a guy who never hit, threw, caught or taught a curveball in his life.

And if he wins 14 more games (for 300), Tommy John may be the only guy to be represented at Cooperstown by a disembodied arm.

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