Tommy John III Warns Against Surgery That Saved Dad's MLB Career

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Tommy John III (right) is cautioning against the overprescription of the surgery that bears his father’s name. (Courtesy Tommy John III)
Tommy John III (right) is cautioning against the overprescription of the surgery that bears the name of his father (left). (Courtesy Tommy John III)

Baseball fans of a certain age will remember Tommy John as a major league pitcher who played significant chunks of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees and won 288 career games.

But today, everybody knows the name "Tommy John" for a different reason.

"He couldn't be prouder that his name's attached to a surgery that prolongs a professional's career," Tommy John III says of his father. "What he went through and what he did back then to figure out the model — to be able to pitch 14 years after and never miss a start because of his elbow in 14 years, he figured that out."

Tommy III is talking about the revolutionary medical procedure his father underwent more than 40 years ago. That surgery saved his dad’s career. But Tommy III is worried it’s become a crisis in youth sports.

"Tommy John surgery is when the ulnar collateral ligament that holds the inside of the elbow together — when it tears or ruptures," Tommy III says. "And what they do is they replace that broken or torn ligament with a tendon."

Usually the tendon comes from the opposite forearm.

"Or they take a piece of your hamstring, or they might dive into a cadaver," he says. "And then what they do is they drill holes into the bone, and they loop it and figure-eight it back and forth and graft that tendon which then acts as a ligament."

Tommy John wasn’t just the first pitcher to have this done. He was the first person, period. That’s how you get a surgery named after yourself.

'The Chances Of You Pitching Are Slim'

"The first surgery was September of '74, and Dr. Frank Jobe was the first one to do it on him," Tommy III says.

Tommy John pitching in 1989. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Tommy John pitching in 1989. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Tommy III was born after his father went under the knife. But he knows the story very well.

"This is something Dr. Jobe had done on polio patients' ankles — that's how he got the idea," Tommy III says. "And so my dad being my dad comes in: 'OK, my ligament's gone. Well, what are my options?' And Frank Jobe, Dr. Jobe, is like, 'Look, I'm gonna perform something, but it's so that you can continue to be a man and a father and a husband and sell cars after this. The chances of you pitching are slim.' And my dad goes, 'But there is a chance?' I mean, it's literally the 'Dumb and Dumber' — 'So you're saying there's a chance?' I think Dr. Jobe said one in a 100 that he'd pitch again, and my dad goes, 'Fine, let's do it.' "

Tommy III does remember the steps his father took to strengthen his arm. He recalls his father driving the family car with a softball wedged between his fingertips, trying to improve his grip.

"If you guys remember the rice bucket — it's an old martial arts trick to strengthen the dexterity and strength of your fingers," Tommy III says. "He would drive his hand into a bucket of rice."

Meanwhile, Tommy III was trying to become a ballplayer himself.

"I was playing Little League Baseball — it had to be third grade — and I was pitching," he recalls. "And my sister was four years ahead of me, so she was in seventh grade. The fence was lined with her friends all around the back post, and they came to watch Tommy John's son.

"And I remember sweating it out profusely, because I could barely keep my stirrups in my cleats. I wasn't developed. I wasn't good, at all, and I was the son of one of the better pitchers of all time."

Tommy III's Playing Career Cut Short

Tommy III was far from a prodigy.

"My first exposure to varsity pitching as a freshman, I struck out 16 times in a row," he says. "And so I had had my share of, 'Oh, my gosh, I am awful. This game might not be for me, and I'm Tommy John's son striking out 16 times in a row.' Not only until my senior year of high school did I get really good."

Tommy III wound up being the Minnesota state player of the year in 1996, moving on to play at Furman University and the Cape Cod League. But then he injured his shoulder and needed an MRI.

"The dye that they injected into my shoulder socket got infected," he says. "And so I had a deep shoulder infection that resulted in a 103-degree fever, some of the worst pain I've ever felt in my life. And my host mom I was living with, I'll never forget it, she took me to her GP, who was John Madden's brother, as it is. And so I come in, and he looks at me, and he's like, 'You don't look good.' And he pulls some fluid out of the back of my shoulder, and it was mustard yellow. That infection ate away the capsule of my shoulder, making my shoulder very, very, very loose."

Tommy John III moved onto what he thought was the next best thing: working with younger baseball players as an instructor.

Tommy III working with youth baseball players. (Courtesy Tommy John III)
Tommy III working with youth baseball players. (Courtesy Tommy John III)

"I would do 14 hours of lessons on a Sunday — that's 28 half-hour lessons. Just strung, back-to-back-to-back-to-back," he says. "I loved it. I loved throwing 3,000 baseballs a night. That was my average, because I threw all my lessons."

Some of his clients were as young as 6 years old. He liked the kids. The parents could be a different story.

"It got to the point to where I had to have a closed-door policy," he says. "Parents were no longer allowed in the back room. We could email, we could talk afterwards, but, I need your son or daughter without you in there, because I don't get the true them. They're terrified to be real. That's what I started to see. Besides the injuries, it was the mental, emotional capacity that — they were just under so much strain for a baseball lesson in November."

'I'm Part Of This Problem'

Tommy III began to worry about his place in baseball’s development culture.

"And I'm like, 'I'm a part of this problem. I'm making money on something they don't need, and I literally lost sleep over it.' This is just how I am. I easily could have just turned a blind eye and done babysitting at $100 an hour, but I was a part of the problem. So I shut down my baseball school overnight, and I enrolled in chiropractic school. And I was gonna be — start to be kind of a part of the solution instead of part of the problem."

“Injuries sometimes are unavoidable. But epidemics? Those are completely preventable."

Tommy John III

Today, Tommy III advocates for a more balanced and healthy approach to youth sports.

"I think the biggest thing is connecting with your kids again and seeing what they want. 'Cause they'll know the way," he says. "We just gotta nudge 'em every now and then."

Like a growing number of voices in the sports medicine community, Tommy III is dead set against the culture of specialization, in which athletes focus on one sport that they play year-round.

"It's really competing in that sport for more than eight months a year," he says. "Some people are, like, 'Well, if I just play a bunch of sports, I'll be fixed?' Well, no. That's one of the things. That's part of it. That's the first step to it. But then there's also that, where, you know, 'My kid just doesn't like any other sports.' OK. Then if it's baseball, you're playing in the spring and summer — on one team. And then when that's over, you have a game plan. And the game plan is not 'play more baseball.'

"Because, truly, let's face it: The time that we're spending in sports, in our grand scheme of life, is so short. But the decisions we're making in those few years is affecting the long haul."

In the meantime, Tommy John III is cautioning against the overprescription of the surgery that bears his father’s name. His father was 31 when he had his surgery. Now, close to 60 percent of all Tommy John surgeries are happening to 15- to 19-year-old arms, he says.

(Courtesy Tommy John III)
(Courtesy Tommy John III)

"So it's happening in a population that it wasn't supposed to occur in," Tommy III says. "And that's what my dad is sick about is — it's prolonging a professional and big leaguer's career for him to provide for his family and seek out a dream, but now it's bled down to where it's occurring more in a demographic that should never be talking about having this surgery."

Tommy III calls the amount of Tommy John surgery an "epidemic."

"I wish I could say Tommy John surgery was isolated," he says. "It's looked at to be so common and not a threat. It's not looked at as unfortunate. It's almost, sickeningly, thought of as a performance enhancement, where some are looking at it as, 'Well, you come back throwing harder. Let's get it preemptively.' That literally is what's going on."

Tommy III knows that Tommy John surgery saved his father’s career and revolutionized baseball.

"To have it there sitting on the side waiting for that essential time when it's necessary, what a great thing to have," he says. "What a great event. History of baseball. Tommy John figured it out."

He’d just prefer to see it used less often.

"Injuries sometimes are unavoidable," Tommy III says. "But epidemics? Those are completely preventable."

Read more in Tommy John III's new book, "Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance: A Sports Parent's Survival Guide."

This segment aired on June 23, 2018.


Jason Gay Contributor
Jason Gay is a contributor to Only A Game. 



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