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An Interview with Baseball Legend Tommy John
"For with God, nothing shall be impossible." (Phil. 4:13)

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By Rick Vandekieft

The Samson Christian Slo-Pitch League is in the 3rd month of its 5 month season but who will end up on top in 2013 is far from decided . Harvest Bible Chapel is leading the East Division ahead of Forest City, Summerside, Compass and Oakridge Presbyterian. The West Division is led by the team from West Park though Byron Community is hot on their heels. Further down the standings in the West are Providence United, Gateway and New Hope. Updated standings are available at www.samsonleague.com.

This is great quality ball so if you have the opportunity, check out one of their games.

The Samson Christian Slo-Pitch League was founded in 2002 out of the need for a church based league that would always ensure quality in all areas of the game. With this mandate, the league only provides its teams with diamonds that meet the standards of any professional slo-pitch association, umpires that are fully trained and certified and a playoff system that only rewards those that perform the sport well. As the slo-pitch play improves, so does the outreach to the unsaved. To ensure that our Christian witness is always on display, rules of conduct that reflect Christian values are incorporated into rulebook and a comprehensive accountability system ensures good sportsmanship.

Each season of the Samson Christian Slo-Pitch League starts with a preseason event that brings a former MLB player to proclaim a Gospel message……….
What do you call a man that takes a life altering risk that has a 1% chance of success, but because of this risk, is responsible for saving the careers of more than 500 major and minor leagues players? You call him Tommy John.

Tommy John was the guest speaker at the 2013 Sampson League Preseason event and prior to his presentation, I sat down with Tommy for a chat about baseball — past present and future, the role of medicine in sports and the influence Christianity had on his life. I was joined by Dr. Mike Nicholson to help me with medical side of this fascinating interview.

A special thanks to Greg Robinson of the Samson League Inc. For arranging our time with Tommy John.

There are few stories about professional athletes that are simple and straightforward. Most have twists and turns and all have ups and downs. The Tommy John baseball story had many, many downs. His abilities and his faith were put on trial throughout most of his life. All through these trials, as he fought to overcome what became severe isolation and the knowledge that no gave his comeback much of a chance, he did not give up. John told us that he repeated one line of Scripture over and over like a mantra: "For with God, nothing shall be impossible."
We began our chat with Tommy John by asking:

CLiL What was it like growing up as a basketball star in Terra Haute, Indiana? Are they as passionate about basketball in Hoosierland as we think?

TJ If you didn't play basketball in Indiana, they ran tests on you to see what was wrong with you. Basketball was a religion in Indiana. One time I went to a church down the street from our rival school. We had beaten them that week and the preacher mentioned the game in his sermon, and here I was from Gerstmeyer!

CLiL We don't hear guys playing 20+ years anymore, let alone 26, especially as a pitcher. What do you attribute your longevity to?

TJ I think it was genes passed down from my dad. I developed a pretty good work ethic from my dad. Other than my elbow, I really didn't have any significant arm problems. And, I just kept myself in very good shape. Very good shape.

Also Steve Jankowski, a player-coach in the Indians' system reminded me that I was not the only man on the team, that there were eight others in the field to help me put batters out. Jankowski told me that, since I could trust my defense to make plays, I didn't have to throw at 100% power on every pitch. He told me to use about eighty percent of my power and save some for the later innings and that worked for me.


CLiL Was there an organization that was better to play for, and likewise, was there one that was the worst, or that he least liked to play for?

TJ For any ballplayer, I think as long as you're playing major league baseball, they're all very good. I particularly enjoyed playing for the Dodgers when Theo O'Malley had the ball club They treated the team pretty much like a family. But the best place in the world to play baseball, or in fact, to play sports was New York City. Playing for the Yankees was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me as far as my pro career went because it's a tough market to play in.

I remember my first game, though. It was Easter Sunday. My first 5 pitches were balls. The fans started booing. Guys were yelling, 'Tommy, you suck, and that was after just 5 pitches!'

My pitching coach Tom Morgan comes out and says, 'What are you doing?! You're gonna get us all fired! Steinbrenner's got his hand on the red phone up there!' I left the game after 6 innings with a 2-1 lead and Goose Gossage came in for the 3-inning save. A 3-inning save!

Another New York story. In 1981, we were playing our second opening day after a 49 day strike. My son, Travis, had fallen out of a 3-story window while on vacation in the Jersey Shore and was in a coma for 17 days. He came out of the coma and walked out of the hospital after 30 days.

George Steinbrenner asked him to throw out the first pitch of that first game and I happened to be pitching that day. I could not go out and my wife was pregnant, so I asked Reggie Jackson to go out with him since he had visited Travis so often in the hospital. After he threw the pitch the crowd roared and Reggie picked him up-he was so little-raised him above his head and 56,000 people started screaming, 'TRA-VIS! TRA-VIS!' That's New York. Those were the same people who two years earlier told me I sucked.


CLiL Who were your favorite teammates?

TJ There are a lot… Mattingly, Reggie, Thurman Munson. I played only half a season with Munson in '79 before he died. Rick Rhoden.

CLiL You played in the American League before the DH was adopted so you were a batter in the AL. Any thoughts on the DH?

TJ I think pitchers should be able to hit, run bases, slide, take the second baseman or shortstop out to break up double plays, I think they should be able to do all that stuff.

CLiL In 74 you were on pace for your best season ever, tell us about July 17 1974.

TJ We were at home against the Expos and we (the Dodgers) team were trying reach the postseason for the first time in 8 years. In the 4th we had a 4-0 lead over the Expos. I was pitching to Hal Breeden with nobody out and runners on first and second base. I threw him a sharp sinker on the outside corner it and that is when everything went wrong. After the throw I felt the strangest sensation I had ever known and my arm went dead as if I had left my arm someplace else. It was as if my body continued to go forward and my left arm had just flown out to right field.

The ball,"blooped" and hit the ground well in front of the plate. I got the ball back and my arm felt fine so I threw a sinker but it only made it half way to the plate. There was a "thump" feeling in my forearm but no pain though I knew I could no longer pitch.

Dr. Jobe took me into a back room at Dodger Stadium to examine my arm. He couldn't see the problem so he told me to ice it and give it a few days' rest so that's what I did. After a few days I knew it was not good if anything, it felt worse, with spasms in my muscles on both sides of the joint.

So when Dr. Jobe took some x-rays he still didn't know how bad the ligament damage was. He sent me to a specialist, Dr. Herb Stark, who also said "rest and home therapy," This was killing me because we were in a pennant race.

In mid-August I joined the team in New York and threw some batting practice. I couldn't even reach the plate, and felt "nothing" in my arm. I told our trainer Bill Buhler to tape my elbow up real tight and it helped. I could feel my arm enough to control where the ball went, but I had no velocity or movement. I knew my arm was done for the season.


CLiL You must have been devastated. Did you think your career was over?

TJ Well, I thought it probably was. I called Dr. Jobe and told him what had happened. It was right then that I told Dr. Jobe that I wanted him to do whatever he could to give me a chance to come back even if it meant he had to operate.

CLiL What was Dr. Jobe's response?

TJ He talked to me about his idea for an operation back when I had earlier trouble. He told me that this surgery was something he had imagined a few years earlier. Back then players knew that the moment you went "under the knife" your career was likely over.

Sure I was extremely leery about the surgery Dr. Jobe was describing but I trusted him. I also knew that without the surgery I stood no chance to get back on the mound.

I asked him to do whatever needed to be done to continue pitching. Dr. Jobe was a realist and he told me that my left ulnar ligament was completely ruptured. He wanted to do radical transplant surgery yet. He said it would be less than a 1% chance that I would ever pitch again. I told Dr. Jobe, "If you do your job, I'll do mine." He said, "If you don't have surgery you'll never play again." I asked him if I did. "You'll probably never pitch again." I figured "probably" was better than "never." Whatever it took to comeback and pitch I was going to do. He was the perfect doctor and I was the perfect patient. And it changed the game of baseball.


On September 25, 1974, Dr. Jobe, while in the middle of what would become a three-hour procedure, made a fateful determination. When he went to repair (the ligament) because of the long years of wear, there was nothing left to repair. He had to look elsewhere for a substitute. Jobe replaced John's medial collateral ligament of the elbow, which was completely ruptured, with a new ligament that he harvested from the palmaris longus tendon of John's right wrist. When John woke up and reached out to learn what had happened during the surgery, he found his left arm—his pitching arm—bandaged and difficult to move. And he found that his right hand was also bandaged.

CLiL The start of Tommy John surgery…what followed for you?

TJ Since no pitcher had ever had this kind of operation, no pitcher had ever come back from it. I didn't know what to expect. The surgery had damaged my ulnar nerve, and my left hand was shriveled into a kind of a claw. I had no feeling in three of my fingers. Most don't know this but three months after my first surgery Dr. Jobe operated again to reroute the nerve through tissue on the inside of my elbow. In January Jobe removed the cast and that's when I went to work to regain strength.

CLiL What did you do to regain the strength?

TJ I worked hard, seven days a week, on exercises Dr. Jobe gave me to strengthen the arm. I worked as hard as I possibly could on my rehabilitation. I never wanted to look back and say: "Son of a gun, maybe if I'd worked a little harder in 1975, I might have come back."

I went to spring training with the Dodgers in 1975, working with the other pitchers. My arm had its full range of motion, but I could not properly grip the ball. So I came up with my own practice method. I taped my numb fingers to the others so I could grip the ball. For six weeks, I threw against this wall. It took on an almost symbolic aspect, representing the 'wall' that I was trying to break through. I'd take four or five balls, throw them against the wall, pick them up again, and continue until I felt tired.


CLiL This must have been so discouraging—– how did you persevere?

TJ I knew that no one on the team gave my comeback much of a chance, but I repeated one line of Scripture over and over like a mantra: "For with God, nothing shall be impossible." (Phil. 4:13)

CLiL Tell us about the 1976 Season. You proved it to the world that for yo — "Nothing was impossible".

TJ I returned to the Dodgers in 1976 and pitched Good. I think I started 31 games with 10 wins against 10 losses. I received the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award.

CLiL 77 was a great year

TJ Yes, I won 20 games , only 7 losses and had a 2.78 ERA. I was 34 and I was a better pitcher now thanks to Dr. Jobe's elbow surgery Tommy John was a better pitcher after the experimental surgery and in the 168 games he started between 1976 and 1989 he completed 57 of them, a statistic that is unheard of today.

Tommy John was a remarkable ballplayer and is a remarkable person. In the hours that followed our interview with him, he spoke to the group gathered at the Samson Christian Slo-Pitch League Kick Off event emphasising how important his faith is and always was through his life. Tommy John is a gentleman and even though he has answered the same questions countless times, he is ready and willing to answer the questions again — answering it with the same enthusiasm and attention he probably gave the first time those questions were asked. While all of the kids at the evetn don't know much about Tommy John it was clear that John has a way with kids. Throughout his presentation he would engage the kids in the audience, asking them questions about pitching and batting. Soon, with his questions, all of the kids in the hall were raising their hands to answer

It was a pleasure and an honor for Mike and I to have had this opportunity to spend time with such a gentleman — and such a baseball icon.

A final note;

DR. FRANK JOBE, who will turn 88 in the summer, is the renowned orthopedic surgeon who revolutionized the medical care and prolonged the careers of baseball pitchers with his ground-breaking tendon transplant procedure now known as the "Tommy John" surgery. It has been estimated that Jobe performed more than 1,000 Tommy John surgeries himself and that nearly 200 major leaguers — not all of them pitchers — have had their careers extended by the procedure.

This month (July 27th) Dr. Jobe will be introduced by Tommy John as Dr. Jobe is being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown New York.






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