OAKLAND — Wyatt Viles listened to every word Tommy John had to say. The 10-year old from Strong watched John cock his left arm in a throwing motion, then mimicked the motion as best he could, twisting his left hand so the baseball turned from his body, then twisting his hand towards himself as he threw.
After the brief lesson, Viles was asked, “What do you know about Tommy John?”
“He was a Major League Baseball player,” Viles said.
In this game of word association, reconstructive elbow surgery never occurred to Viles. That was something John found refreshing.
“These young kids, almost all of them, they have no idea that I ever played the game,” John said.
John played the game at the highest level for 26 seasons for six Major League teams. John won 288 games, struck out 2,245 hitters and posted a career earned run average of 3.34. But now, he’s known more for the elbow surgery that salvaged his career in the mid-1970s than for being one of the best left-handed starting pitcher of his era.
He’s OK with it. He’s happy to show off the long scar on his left elbow, possibly the most famous scar in sports history.
“I don’t care. It could have been Tommy John hemorrhoid surgery. That would have been embarrassing,” John said.
John was in Oakland on Monday to coach at a youth baseball clinic at Harold Alfond Fenway Park at Camp Tracy. He had just spent some time coaching at a clinic in New Jersey.
“We just had a one week camp. It’s fun. I think the thing that these kids could probably do that would help out their baseball game is learn balance, learn strength. It takes strength, it takes coordination. Like this kid here,” John said, pointing towards Viles, “is a little farther along then most of the kids. You can tell by the way he throws the ball he’s farther along.”
The surgery which now bears John’s name is ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. The damaged elbow ligament is replaced by one from another part of the body. When Dr. Frank Jobe performed the surgery on John in 1974, nobody expected John, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, to make it back to the big leagues.
“It was over if I didn’t have it done. When I opted to have the surgery, Dr. Jobe told me that I didn’t have to have the surgery, but if I did not have it, I would never pitch in Major League Baseball again. He said ‘That I can guarantee you,’ ” John said. “I said, ‘If I have the surgery, will I be able (to pitch)?’ He said ‘I don’t know. Probably not.’ “
John missed the 1975 season, and returned to go 10-10 for the Dodgers in 1976. Between 1977 and 1980, John won at least 20 games three times, for the Dodgers in 1977 and for the New York Yankees in 1979 and 1980.
The surgery didn’t make John a better pitcher, he said.
“I think after surgery, I played on better ballclubs, which makes you a better pitcher,” John said.
When John had elbow reconstruction surgery, it was still an experimental procedure. Some teams, including the Boston Red Sox, he said, were reluctant to pursue him when he was a free agent after the 1978 season because of worries that his elbow would break down again.
“Once you get to a certain point, and you don’t reinjure it, your chances of hurting your arm again are the same as this other guy hurting it the first time,” John, who pitched for 14 seasons after the surgery and was 46 years old in his final season, said. “After surgery, I could throw the ball 90, 92 miles an hour if I wanted to throw it straight. But I never wanted the ball to be straight. Ever, ever, ever.”
One thing John never envisioned was the number of young pitchers undergoing Tommy John Surgery. For instance, recent Westbrook High School pitcher Scott Heath had the surgery, and will rehab with the hopes of pitching for the University of Maine in 2013.
“The injury itself is an overuse injury… It’s a result of year round baseball. You can’t do it. I tell, when I talk to kids like this, the best arms in the world are on Major League Baseball pitchers. They don’t pitch year-round,” John said. “So why would little kids, whose arms aren’t developed, bodies aren’t developed, pitch year-round baseball?”
Another thing John doesn’t like is when Tommy John surgery is used an option, not a last resort.
“It’s not an option. You should never even think that way,” John said. “But some parents say ‘Well, my son’s a pitcher. He’s probably going to have to have it. Let’s have it done now.’ That’s absolutely obscene.”
Monday’s visit wasn’t John’s first trip to Maine. Years ago, he took part in a 10K race in Topsham organized by former Yankees manager and Maine native Stump Merrill.
“After the run, it would be on a Saturday when Bowdoin played either Bates or Colby. Then we would tailgate in the end zone,” John said, adding that he’d also visited Portland to scout players on the Trenton Thunder when he worked for the Yankees in 2004.
“This is the farthest north I’ve been,” he said.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242