You'd be hard pressed to find a man who's had a greater impact on baseball over the past 40 years. We're not talking about Hank Aaron, or Bob Gibson or Roger Clemens, Cal Ripken Jr. or Barry Bonds. We're talking about Dr. Frank Jobe who passed away Thursday night at the age of 88. He is the surgeon who pioneered the ulnar collateral ligament transplant surgery that saved so many elbows and prolonged the careers of so many players, pitchers and position players alike.
Dr. Jobe first performed his landmark surgery in 1974. He was actually in the stands watching at Dodger Stadium when Tommy John, for whom the operation will forever be known, blew out his elbow in a game against the Expos. John was out of action for 18 months after the surgery. But he not only returned, he flourished. Tommy John was named Comeback Player of the Year in 1976 and went on to win another 164 games with the Dodgers and Yankees before retiring at age 46.
He finnished with 288 victories and a 3.34 ERA. He appeared in three All-Star Games after his surgery. He was never the best pitcher of his generation or anything close to that, but his career numbers and the fact he rebounded from this operation the way he did should in the Hall of Fame in my mind.
Just how important has this operation been? Well before last season, 124 of the 360 pitchers on the opening day rosters had undergone at least one "Tommy John". It's not just the pitchers though, who've gone through this career-saving surgery. Carl Crawford, Rafael Furcal, ex-Jay Kelly Johnson and current Jays catching prospect A.J Jimenez have all undergone this elbow surgery.
The first Blue Jays pitcher I could find who had the operation was David Wells back in 1985. But the list grows from there. Jimmy Key in 1988, former skipper John Farrell in 1991 while he was pitching for Cleveland and the list goes on. You have Billy Koch, A.J Burnett while he was with Florida, Jason Frasor who had it done twice, B.J. Ryan in 2007, Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Josh Johnson while with Florida and Chris Carpenter with St. Louis in 2007. All owe their careers to Dr. Jobe and those surgeons who have followed his trailblazing path.
The disturbing thing is the way elbow injuries have increased. There were 24 documented "Tommy John" surgeries in 2013, including those of Mets star pitching prospect Matt Harvey and Blue Jays journeyman pitcher Ramon Ortiz, who underwent the operation for a second time. But the worst year by far was 2012, when there were 46 "Tommy John's" including four to Blue Jays Drew Hutchison, Kyle Drabek, his second, Luis Perez and the aforementioned A.J. Jimenez.
There are two known pitchers who actually had three elbow ligament transplant surgeries. Jose Rijo who helped spark the Reds to victory in the 1990 World Series and Jason Isringhausen, who turned from a top starting prospect with the Mets to a standout reliever later in his career.
Rijo is truly a remarkable story. After being named an All-Star with the Reds in 1995, he suffered a serious elbow injury and was out of the game for five full seasons. He finally battled back in 2001 as a reliever with Cincinnati. It was said after three "Tommy John" surgeries and two other arm operations, his elbow had almost no ligament left. But ironically, the arthritis in his elbow, the scar tissue and the fact he had built up the muscles in his forearm to such an extent, he was still able to throw against all odds. Rijo retired in 2002 but not before winning the final ball game ever played at old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.
One pitcher who doesn't need to worry about his ulnar collateral ligament is Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. That's because he was born without one. Like Rijo, Dickey has defied the odds with many a doctor saying Dickey shouldn't be able to pitch without that ligament in his elbow. Yet two years ago, he won the Cy Young Award with the Mets and is still going strong with the Blue Jays at 39.
At least 85 per cent of "Tommy John" patients make a complete recovery and in most cases, their elbows are stronger than ever. However, there are some who don't make it all the way back. Blue Jays closer B.J Ryan was never the same after his surgery in 2007 and was out of the game within a couple of years. But cases like that are the exception rather than the rule and the game would be a pale shadow of itself without the medical marvels of Dr. Frank Jobe.
As a footnote, we should also mention Dr. Jobe pioneered a surgical technique on another Dodgers' star, Orel Hershiser. It was a less invasive shoulder procedure that reduced the risk of collateral damage to the shoulder structure and sped up the recovery time.
This and That
Phillies infielder Freddy Galves will one day be the answer to a trivia question. On Thursday, he became the first player to hit a home run off the Yankees Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka.
I try not to get too caught up in the struggles of pitchers in spring training since they're often just working on command or one specific pitch but I've got to admit on Wednesday, I was a little bit concerned when Brandon Morrow gave up five runs on six hits over three innings to the Pirates. Then I noticed on the same day, White Sox ace Chris Sale gave up six runs on six hits and a walk in just 2-2/3 innings against the Padres. Then, the Cubs Jeff Samardzija surrendered three runs on four hits in three innings in a 7-5 loss to Colorado. At that point, I realized it's too early to be making hard judgements.