Tommy John’s cell-phone log was a good way of measuring the impact of Stephen Strasburg’s elbow injury.
“My phone’s been ringing off the wall,” John said in a telephone interview following the Washington Nationals’ disclosure yesterday that Strasburg likely needs the surgery that bears John’s name. “The only thing that could be bigger than this would be if Obama had to have Tommy John surgery.”
John, who in 1974 became the first professional athlete to successfully recover from ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, feared the worst for the Major League Baseball rookie after seeing him throw a pitch and grab his elbow in an Aug. 21 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
“When I saw him throw the pitch and he instinctively went down to his elbow, I went, ‘Oh, crap,’ because that’s pretty indicative of hurting something structurally in your elbow,” John said. “They all do that same thing.”
The injury is difficult news for the Nationals, a last-place franchise that routinely doubled attendance when the rookie pitched, and a loss for fans who watched the 22-year-old right-hander paint the edges of the strike zone with an array of 100 mph fastballs and off-speed pitches.
Strasburg, who in 2009 signed a record $15 million, four-year contract as the top draft pick, will have a second opinion in California before likely opting for the surgery that usually takes 12-18 months for recovery, according to the team.
“He was a ray of hope,” said John, 67. “He was ballyhooed, got a ton of money and came out throwing strikes. That’s unusual, even for guys that have been around the big leagues. He could throw strikes with two or three pitches. He was a joy to watch.”
Tommy John’s Surgery
John, who went 288-231 with a 3.34 earned run average before retiring in 1989 with the New York Yankees, was 13-3 for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974 when he suffered his season-ending injury. The revolutionary operation, in which a ligament is replaced by a tendon from somewhere else in the body, was performed by Frank Jobe.
“When I threw it, oh my God, did it ever hurt,” John said. “I don’t know what I did, but I’ll tell you what, I started shaking my elbow as I was trying to shake the pain out of it and it didn’t go away.”
He threw one more pitch before taking himself out of the game, returning one year and one day later. Three of his four All-Star appearances came after the surgery.
Since then, dozens of pitchers have had the procedure and returned to the sport, including A.J. Burnett, Josh Johnson, Tim Hudson, Paul Byrd, Chris Carpenter and Billy Wagner.
Strasburg, who might opt to dial back his fastball a bit and pitch differently, may never be better than what he showed fans and opposing batters this season, John said.
“He already throws the ball 96 to 101 miles an hour,” he said. “How could he be better? If he comes back the same or slightly worse, he’s still going to throw the ball harder than 90 percent of the guys in the major leagues.”
Strasburg has a 5-3 record with a 2.91 earned run average and 92 strikeouts in 12 starts. In his major league debut on June 8, Strasburg struck out a team-record 14 batters. He said yesterday that he hopes to be back from the injury in a year.
‘Test for Me’
“If I keep looking for an explanation, it’s going to eat at me,” Strasburg said at a televised news conference. “I’ve got to let it go. I’ve just got to move on and that’s what I’m doing. This obviously is a test for me.”
John, who managed in the minor leagues after retirement, now lives in Arlington, Texas, and works in sales for Sportable Scoreboards, a scoreboard and LED sign company.
He said he has no hard feelings about being known more for the surgical procedure than winning almost 300 major league games.
“Even when I managed, guys didn’t know what I did in the game as a pitcher, but they knew Tommy John surgery, which is fine,” he said. “It means that I’ll be forever linked in baseball and that is fine, because baseball is what I love and what I love to do.”