Interviews | Tommy John
Tommy John, simply put, is one of the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time. His 288 victories over his 26-year career ranks 7th most among lefties and his 2,245 strikeouts places him at 50th in baseball history. While in New York, John enjoyed some of his greatest success, going 43-18 with a 3.19 ERA from 1979-1980, while earning 2 All-Star appearances and a runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting. His deceptive sinkerball induced innumerable groundouts over his extensive career, helping him win twenty games 3 times, finish runner-up in the Cy Young twice, and play in 4 All-Star Games. However, what John is best known for is something that emerged out of one of the darkest moments of his career.
In the middle of his 1974 campaign, with a 13-3 record and a 2.59 ERA, he irreversibly damaged the ulnar collateral ligament in his left pitching elbow. At one time it was harbinger of doom for a pitcher, and John was left wondering if he would ever throw a Major League baseball again; but on September 24, 1975, John and Dr. Frank Jobe would change the game forever. In a procedure called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, now known simply as Tommy John Surgery, John’s damaged elbow ligament was replaced with a healthy ligament from his right forearm. At the time it was uncharted territory, and Dr. Jobe placed his patient’s chances of a full recovery at 1 out of 100, but John’s legendary work ethic and competitive spirit made him the perfect patient for the perfect doctor.
John would take the entire 1975 season to recover and to strengthen his pitching arm, allowing him return to the Dodgers in 1976 and finish with a seemingly miraculous 10-10 record. However, John would go on to pitch another 13 years, winning more games after his surgery (164) than before it (124). The success of the experimental procedure would revolutionize the game, saving the careers of a myriad pitchers. By 2009 it was reported that success after the surgery had risen to 85-92%. It’s just part of the remarkable legacy of a man known as much for his pitching as for his good-natured personality. He remains a favorite in New York and it was my pleasure to interview him while he killed time at Phoenix’ Sky Harbor Airport.
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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?
If you didn’t play basketball in Indiana, they ran tests on you to see what was wrong with you. Have you ever seen the movie Hoosiers?
Milan beat us [Gerstmeyer Tech] in the state semifinals and then beat Muncie Central, 32-30, on Bobby Plump’s shot. I was at both games as a 10-year-old ball boy, and I remember shooting around at halftime. The games were played at Butler Fieldhouse…
Right, with the famous tape measure scene in the movie.
Yes! I love that part. It held 11,000 people. I remember one of the players on our squad saying, ‘Coach, you know how much hay they could fit in here?’ [Laughs] But, 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!
I believe it. When I think of Indiana I think of a basket in every driveway.
Exactly. My basketball court was my dad’s garden during the spring and summer, but that thing got beat down in the winter from all of the playing I did on it. I got about 50 basketball scholarships offers, including one to the University of Illinois, and only one baseball scholarship. That doesn’t say anything about my baseball ability, baseball just wasn’t as big at the collegiate level.
Does one game stick out in your mind from your high school basketball career?
We’re playing Bedford High. It was my senior year and it was just one of those games. We ran a triangle offense like Phil jackson’s, except my coach wasn’t 6’8″. I hit 21 of 28 shots and scored 47 points. I loved basketball. My senior year I averaged somewhere around 16 rebounds a game and I was 6’3″. I rebounded like I pitched. I could just see where the shot from and where the ball was gonna come off. I also used to set up my man. I would go inside all game on my man, and then in the final minute of a close game on a foul shot, I’d fake like I was going inside and then spin off and get the rebound.
Just like in pitching, going high and tight.
Exactly, you go down, down, down, and then high and inside to get the out.
Well, when most people hear the name “Tommy John” they think of the surgery. As you went into the procedure, how optimistic were you that you’d be able to play baseball again.
I tried to come back and rehab, but I couldn’t throw. One of the reasons for my success was I had the right doctor. I told Dr. Jobe, “If you do your job, I’ll do mine.” I asked him what my odds were. 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.
That’s what pissed me off this summer with the whole [Stephen] Strasburg thing.
Shutting him down?
Yeah. Everyone was calling to interview me to talk about my opinion, and I said the longer you pitch post-surgery the less of a chance you have to injure the arm. And then I hear his agent, Scott Boras, say, ‘Tommy John doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ I don’t know what I’m talking about? I never missed a start the final 13 years of my career.
After losing to the Yanks in the ’77 and ’78 World Series you signed with them as a free agent. What were your thoughts about coming to New York?
I took advantage and signed with the Yanks. The reason I didn’t sign with the Dodgers was because they wouldn’t give me a 3-year contract after my surgery, even though the chances of injuring my arm at that point was the same as anyone else’s. At that time LA was the best organization in the world with the O’Malleys. Walter was like a father and his son was a great guy. But I left for the 1 year and the money.
I enjoyed my time in New York more than you’ll ever know. The fans, the museums, the restaurants, the plays… but the only tough thing was the heat. You had to deal with the media and the Boss.
You had two of your best statistical seasons in New York. What allowed you to be so successful in pinstripes, where so many others had failed?
I liked being around people. 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!’
After 5 pitches?!
Well, that’s what we do. We’re tough to please in New York.
My pitching coach Tom Morgan comes out and says, ‘What the hell 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. [Laughs]
Yeah, when’s the last time that happened? Mariano’s save in the ’03 ALCS?
[Laughs] Probably. But you were expected to win there. What I loved about George [Steinbrenner] was the premiss that we have a good team, we should win now, where some teams say, ‘We’re young, we’ll keep getting better.’ Maybe. Maybe not. That was George. He wanted to win.
This is kind of a hard question, but do you have a favorite moment from your time in New York?
1981. We’re 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. [Laughs]
That’s what we do in New York! What does it mean to you that you are still remembered fondly by the fans on occasions like Old-Timer’s Day?
I think Old-Timer’s Days are great. I came back and I’m in the clubhouse with Mantle, Maris, Henrich, Lopat, Raschi, Ford, Joe DiMaggio. You see the guys that made the Yankees great and the fans appreciate that.
Who were your favorite teammates?
[Don] Mattingly, Reggie, [Thurman] Munson. I played only half a season with Munson in ’79 before he died. Rick Rhoden. But I never palled around with the guys. In away cities we would go out for a bite to eat after the game, but at home I was with my family. I was one of only a few guys whose family lived in New York.
What has been your best experience since retiring in ’89?
I loved broadcasting. I did 6 years in the minor league in Charlotte and in Minnesota with the Twins, and with the Yankees. I loved it, telling stories… I also loved managing. One of my best experiences was managing in the Independent League in Bridgeport. You didn’t have to follow any guidelines. We had one pitcher throw 145 pitches and I just asked him if he was okay. I said, ‘You okay?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘You sure?’ ‘Yeah.’ And he finished the game.
B-5… ah, crap I’m at the wrong gate. I’m supposed to be at B-15. There’s no one even around in this terminal.
I’ll let you go.