FARGO — The professional baseball career of Tommy John was rescued in 1974 when surgeon Frank Jobe did something that was previously thought unattainable: replace a ligament in the elbow with a tendon from either another part of the body or a donor.
It’s now a term that is such common knowledge with today’s baseball players that they know the surgery better than they know the career of the former major league pitcher. Tommy John surgery is even a noun in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
“Every kid in baseball pretty much knows what Tommy John is,” said Kevin Maris, between shots on Monday at the annual Roger Maris Celebrity Golf Tournament at Rose Creek golf course in Fargo. “It’s been a lifesaver for a lot of athletes.”
The son of Roger Maris is a coach for the Florida Hardballers youth baseball program based in Gainesville, Fla. He was playing in the same group as John, who said he has no problem having his legacy tied to the surgery with one exception: that it relates to the healing and prolonged careers of players being paid to play the game.
It shouldn’t be for the kids, he said. For those 18-and-under, he would prefer it to be called what it is — the ulnar collateral replacement surgery with palmaris longus tendon. The procedure is mostly associated with the overuse of the arm in baseball.
“The thing that gets me is 57 percent of all of these surgeries are done on kids between 12 and 18,” John said. “And that shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be called Tommy John on those young kids.”
Maris backed that up saying he thinks kids are too quick to have the surgery instead of letting it heal on its own.
“Everything is all about ‘now’ and not giving it time,” he said. “Everyone is in a rush to do something.”
John had his breakthrough surgery at 31 years old and after 12 years in the majors, most with the Chicago White Sox. He pitched for 14 more years after returning in 1975. To help with rehabilitation and maintaining strength, Jobe told him golf was a way of getting the necessary movement in the elbow.
That didn’t sit well with California Angels manager Gene Mauch when John pitched for the Angels in the early 1980s.
“Gene Mauch the genius, he had a $1,000 incident fine if he caught you playing golf,” John said.
So John skirted the rules by putting clubs in a box that the team took on the road and marking it “fishing poles.” Fishing poles were allowed on team travel; golf clubs were not.
Eventually, John got busted.
“I go into the clubhouse and (Mauch) liked to play cards with the guys,” he said. “They’re playing bridge. So I come in with my golf glove hanging out my hip pocket, a golf tee in the back of my ear and I take three or four golf balls and roll them out on the locker room floor and I just said, oh, just picking them up. He just looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing?’”
John, 76, lives in Palm Springs, Calif. The surgery that bears his name has not changed much over the years, he said, other than reducing the time of his surgery of about 2½ hours to around one hour by today’s physicians.
Surprisingly, he has yet to have another baseball player who was about to undergo Tommy John surgery call him and ask him about the procedure the rehabilitation afterward. There are different theories to getting the arm back in shape, he said, but he figures he and Jobe got it right from the get-go.
And it has extended the careers of so many. The website Wikipedia lists 326 Major League players who at one time had Tommy John surgery. That includes Concordia head coach and Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks assistant coach Chris Coste, who wasn’t able to get back to the majors after his 2010 surgery.
Many others did. The salary those players received after the procedure is almost immeasurable.
“I’m sure Tommy wishes he had a portion of that,” Maris said.