By Ernie Palladino
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The recent activities of Matt Harvey and Manny Banuelos would have seemed inconceivable back in 1974, the year a brilliant surgeon named Dr. Frank Jobe started piecing torn-apart pitching elbows back together.
If there was ever a non-baseball man deserving of a spot among the Hall of Fame’s contributors section, Jobe certainly stands atop the list. Without him, the ranks of quality major leaguers and prospects alike would have been diminished greatly, their careers curtailed by a simple “Pop!”
Forget that the Astros plastered Banuelos, the Yankees’ young Triple-A prospect, in his first game since “Tommy John” surgery in 2012. The fact he even was out there Saturday is a testament to just how far that surgery has come since “TJ’s” first visit to Jobe after his elbow popped.
Forget that Harvey not ruling out 2014 after similar surgery is probably more fanciful flight than any reality-based logic. Without Jobe, Harvey wouldn’t even have had the prerequisite hope that allowed him to string those 140 characters into his Twittered prediction.
Back then, when Jobe first started digging into elbows, torn tendons ended careers, no questions asked. Getting through life with full use of an arm was the paramount question before Jobe’s medical magic, not “When can I start throwing again?”
When Jobe died last week at age 88, he left a trail of rebuilt arms and resurrected careers in his path. Surgeons since have improved on Jobe’s techniques. Where once the odds of returning were 1-in-100 when John first stepped into Jobe’s office to discuss an experimental technique, now pitchers as young as high schoolers are having fruitful, outstanding careers after Tommy John surgery.
But back then, it was all uncharted territory. Even Jobe wasn’t sure it would work.
Jobe was the Dodgers’ team physician at the time, and John, a wonderful left-handed pitcher, felt a sharp pain when he threw a pitch in 1974. In his 1991 autobiography, John related how he felt the pain and heard a pop from inside his arm, and then a feeling of “nothingness” as his pitch blooped to the plate.
Jobe found he had blown the medial collateral ligament of his left elbow, a sure career-ender. And Jobe didn’t lie to the young talent. He put John’s chances of pitching again in the majors at 1-in-100.
“Let’s do it,” John said.
Jobe transplanted a little-used tendon from John’s right wrist and formed a new ligament out of it. Durability wasn’t even a concern yet. Even Jobe had no idea whether John’s body would accept the ligament/tendon switch, or whether it would ever be invigorated by blood supply.
All appeared lost at first. John’s arm had withered and his hand curled into a claw-like mass after a few months. It took a second operation, this one to remove the ulnar nerve to allow John to rebuild strength in his arm and hand painlessly, to straighten out the problem.
John returned in 1976 a changed pitcher. He threw sinkers instead of fastballs, but that allowed him great success and longevity. John finished up in 1989 at age 46, the winner of 288 games.
John in effect won the lottery. He got the million-dollar payoff, the longshot who survived. Today’s pitchers, thanks to the advancement others have made off Jobe’s original technique, come back at close to a 92 percent rate.
Banuelos and Harvey are just two of Jobes’ indirect legacies. Banuelos is back in action. Other factors — control, guile, all the other elements of pitching — will determine if he goes from Triple-A prospect to effective major leaguer. And Harvey is well enough and far enough along in his rehab to dream about joining the Mets’ rotation in September.
None of that happens if Jobe doesn’t make that first cut in 1974.
His contributions were as valuable to Major League Baseball as any 20-game winner’s. Maybe it’s time to put an innovative healer in the Hall of Fame.
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