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Published:May 18th, 2014 20:57 EST
What Do Major League Baseball and Tommy John Surgery Have in Common?

What Do Major League Baseball and Tommy John Surgery Have in Common?

By Ron G Anselm

Being a pitcher in baseball not just the Major Leagues but  in even Little League baseball takes more toll on the arm than any other sport except maybe being a quarterback in the pop Warner leagues, college or the NFL. This year, Major League baseball is noticing a big problem among pitchers. More and more Major League pitchers have to undergo what is known as Tommy John surgery.

A little history behind what Tommy John surgery is; for non-baseball fans, Tommy John was one of the star pitchers for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the early 1970s when the Dodgers had built one of the greatest teams in Major League baseball history under the leadership of Walt Alston their old Manager before Tommy Lasorda took the helm. Tommy John surgery is named after the pitcher Tommy John since back then he was the first to undergo the experimental surgery. The surgery involves replacing the elbow ligament with a tendon harvested from elsewhere (often the non-pitching elbow or forearm) in the patient`s body. (aol.com)

Pitchers now days and even back when I played in my park league and Little League days throw or threw more junk at a young age than ever before. Throwing junk like a curve ball, screw ball or even throwing hard while your arm is still developing and growing puts a ton of stress on the tendons in the elbow and sets up disaster for playing in the future. The pitchers I played against in Little League threw like Major League pitchers of today.  

These guys threw curve balls that had more break on them than a Malibu Beach wave does at full crest. I once went up against a junk ball pitcher when I played in Senior Major Little League at Northridge National Little League. I still remember the at bat because he threw a curve ball that looked like it was going behind me at the plate only to end up with so much break on the ball you would literally bail out of the batter`s box to avoid getting hit by the pitch but it would break at the last second and go over the heart of the plate for a strike.

During that at bat it was my first time facing this guy and I didn`t know how he threw until then. The home plate umpire looked at me when I bailed out of the batter`s box on the first pitch as the pitch tailed back over the heart of the plate for a strike with a smile on his face, almost like he knew from other batter`s that I too would end up bailing out of the way on the first pitch. (If I only knew his pitching style my first at bat against him. I would have opened my stance up a little, stepped back further in the batter`s box and waited on the pitch a little longer to break over the heart of the plate and then, Crack! Connect on the pitch for more than likely a towering home run that probably would have reached Reseda Boulevard the main street going by the Little League fields)

 That was strike one. The next pitch was of course easy for me to guess from the pitcher`s style and reputation and watching the stitching on the ball as he once again released the pitch towards home plate and yes, here`s comes another curve ball at about eighty plus miles an hour but this time.....

I hung in the batter`s box thinking I could connect early on the pitch and send the ball soaring over our 375 foot home plate to the left field fence for a home run or at least a line drive over the short stops head for a base hit and....

His next pitch that had more rotation on the ball than planet Earth makes over a million years didn`t quite break as much and ended-up skinning my ribs as it tailed past me. I trotted to first base to take my base since I was hit by the pitch. Those pitchers I played against especially this guy probably are still feeling the effects today on their arms from years of throwing fastballs and junk at a young age. This is where the problem starts.

The game of baseball is hard on the arm and shoulder even if you are not a pitcher. My arm and shoulder are done. When my son was trying to make it to the NFL as a Receiver and we were working out together to get him there we would do passing drills for hours.

He would run short pass patterns, then long pass patterns, then short and fake pass patterns and so on. After a few minutes throwing those forty-yard laser passes to him there goes my shoulder. I only pitched a couple of times in my early baseball playing days and only for a few innings. I played mostly infield and then later in the outfield and my arm and shoulder really shows the effects of my baseball days. I can imagine being a full-time pitcher and how the effects of throwing constantly would cause degeneration of the tendons in the arm and elbow and it does over time. Baseball is now becoming more aware of this problem.

This to me is the same concept as the NFL finally realizing that they had to improve their gear or change the penalty rules for guys that were getting ferocious concessions. Baseball has to come up with something to try to alleviate all the pitchers of today going down having to have Tommy John surgery.

Bud Selig who is the Commissioner of Major League baseball commented on this by saying, "It`s a problem. There`s no question about it. I`m almost afraid to pick up the paper every day because there`s some bad news."(Selig, B.)

The bad news being another pitcher is out due to having to have Tommy John surgery on their pitching arm. Normally a pitcher that undergoes this surgery misses a full season. After they come back there is always that chance they may not throw as hard as they did before the surgery but some positive examples of pitchers who had the surgery and came back throwing as hard as they did before they had it are Chris Carpenter (2007), Stephen Strasburg (2010) and Adam Wainwright (2011). These guys recovered very well form the surgery and continued throwing hard when they recovered and came back.

 Major League baseball is now meeting with high end doctors and medical people to try to determine if they can come up with a way to protect these million dollar arms before the damage is done. Doctor James Andrews who is one of the world`s top orthopedic physicians will be meeting soon with Major League baseball to try to determine this challenge.

Dr. Andrews also commented on this, "We`re going to put together a research project to help figure this out. We don`t know quite what to say at this point. But, yeah, it`s got everybody`s attention."(Andrews)

This has become such a problem that a survey taken last year in 2013 showed that twenty-five percent or one-quarter of the Major League pitchers have already undergone the Tommy John surgery and even fifteen-percent of minor league pitchers have also had this surgery.

Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute, who conducted the survey with Stan Conte of the Dodgers, commented on my above quote by saying, "This does not include the guys who didn`t make it back. These are the success stories."(Fleisig, G.)

Yes, a lot of times as athletes we don`t make it back to be able to play in our chosen sport if the injury that sidelined us is bad enough. When you ruin your arm as a baseball player you can only hope and pray that you can once play again and be able to play with the same motivation and ferocity as you did before your injury. It`s hard.

There is better technology nowadays then say back three decades ago when Pitchers like Ray Goose " Gossage or Nolan Ryan threw so hard the baseball would have a tail of fire behind it like a blazing comet. Doctors use MRI machines to pinpoint any damage and Major League teams use Radar guns to watch if a pitcher may be losing velocity on their pitches. That would tell them there may be a potential problem with the franchise pitcher`s arm.

Even Tommy John himself commented on the good Ol` days of playing through pain while pitching in the Major Leagues. He said, "Back then, you could be on your deathbed and you never told anybody because if you said, `God, my arm hurts,` there were 15 guys waiting to take your place. So I kept my mouth shut and just kept pitching, kept pitching, kept pitching."(John, T.)

Even if you`re a pitcher and you say, Well, I will play through the pain and at the end of the season during the off season I will heal. " (Anselm, R.) Really doesn`t have any substance to it because baseball has become a year round sport to most players.

In my latest book titled, Our Grand Ol` National Past Time " A Brief History of Major League Baseball " When I interviewed Jerry Reuss in it, he told me the same thing that baseball was a year round sport for him and most of the guys playing. Jerry played twenty-two years in the Major Leagues and to be able to play that long you have to keep your body going and in shape. This also includes playing, practicing, working out, etc. during the off season to be able to come back the next year to play and play in top shape.

Another problem in baseball is the time to be able to keep your body and arm in just physical shape by performing say weight training or cardiovascular exercises. You find yourself just throwing, throwing, throwing, practicing your junk and preparing for each game.

The New York Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek commented on this and said, "When you`re throwing year-round, you don`t have much time for all this fitness stuff. So you`re fitness gets sacrificed, your arm is overloaded. That`s a recipe for disaster." (Altchek, D.)

The USA Baseball Medical/Safety Advisory Committee recommends limits of 50 pitches per game and 2,000 pitches per year for 9- and 10-year-olds, and 75 pitches per game and 3,000 per year from 11-14. The limit rises to 90 at ages 15-16 and 105 for ages 17-18, with no more than two games a week. (aol.com)

To me there is no way a ball player at a young age is going to be able to meet these safety standards. When I played I ate, slept, drank, dreamed and lived baseball and sports 24/7 so I probably threw a billion times a week more than these above safety standards. I guess that is probably why my arm and shoulder now is nothing more than a bowl of Jell-O or at times fells like it. The research to try to fix this problem is ongoing.

Dr. Gary Green who is Major League baseball`s Medical Director said, "We`re looking at it in terms of the demographics: Can we predict who is going to get this injury? Is there something in their training? Is there something in their biomechanics?" (Green, G.)

It really comes down to how many pitches you throw and how hard you throw which are the major determining factors to having to have this surgery on your arm. I still remember the milestone in baseball when Tommy John first had this history making surgery back in 1974.

Back then there were only four similar surgeries through the years until 1996 when the total number of surgeries spiked from four to twelve a year. Then, the numbers kept spiking to 43 by 2003 and 69 in 2012 before dropping to 49 last year. That`s really alarming and is a problem.

Tom House who is a former Major League pitcher and pitching coach commented on the root cause or the possible root cause of this problem by saying, "These guys today, they spend more time in the weight room than they do on the mound. Strengths and weights are fine, but if that was everything, then Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a 20-game winner. They just get so big and strong that there`s very little elasticity in their arms." (House, T.)

That`s the same commented I was thinking as-well. The players now days have better strength training equipment, better strength training exercises  and routines and focus more and strength training then the basics of keeping your arm in shape by stretching and doing the old days exercises to keep it limber the tendons that make it function. Maybe, this is where baseball needs to focus first on getting this problem under control.

                                                                         Reference

Blum, R., Fitzpatrick, M., Krawczynski, j., Newberry, P., AP Sports Writers, Baseball wonders why pitchers` elbows keep tearing. (http://www.aol.com/article/2014/05/16/baseball-wonders-why-pitchers-elbows-keep-tearing). Retrieved May 2014.

Hey all you sports fans out there (Like John Madden used to famously say) why don`t you try a copy of my latest book titled, Our Grand Ol` National Past Time " A Brief History of Major League Baseball.  And Read more about the history making and memorable events of Major League baseball over the past three decades. Go to (ronanselm.tateauthor.com) or (www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore) to buy your many copies. 

 

(click to listen to radio interview)