Reaching back from the comfort of a well-padded chair, Tommy John reached back and snapped off one of his famous curves.
And like a good percentage of the others he threw during 26 big league seasons, this one was right on target.
“The big thing is, guys are bigger, stronger,” John said. “But they don’t know how to play baseball.”
John was at PNC Field on Saturday, talking about the difference between today’s game and the one he played during a major league career that lasted from 1963 to 1989.
When John talks, you listen. After all, the guy is so famous they named a surgery after him. His 288 wins with six different teams, including three 20-win seasons in a span of four years spent with the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, wouldn’t have been possible if not for an innovative elbow ligament replacement procedure.
It was performed on him in 1974 by the now renowned Dr. Frank Jobe, who substituted a tendon for the ligament in John’s left arm in what is called ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. It’s become known as “Tommy John Surgery” because John not only recovered from it he went on to win 164 more games in the big leagues after the operation.
“Most guys thought Tommy John was the surgeon, instead of the pitcher,” John said, laughing. “Dr. Jobe told me you don’t have to have the surgery, but you’ll never pitch again. If I had it and it didn’t work, I wasn’t going to pitch again anyway.”
It was a low-risk gamble for John, and it certainly didn’t affect his fastball much.
“I didn’t throw the ball hard, even before surgery. In those days, you were a good pitcher not because you threw 95 (miles per hour). You were a good pitcher if you got batters out.
“That’s what we should get back to.”
He was on a roll now.
Of all those glorious victories he put up on the mound – including three World Series starts and five more in league championship series – most of them wouldn’t have been possible without the surgery that saved his pitching arm.
But John argues none of them would have been possible if he grew up in today’s game. He was a 19-year-old kid, John remembers, just a year removed from high school, pitching in the late innings of an International League game against a big name he’d watched on television.
“A year out of high school,” John reiterated. “That wouldn’t happen now. I struck out Luke Easter, on a 2-2 pitch, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh inning. I would never have been allowed to do that now.”
Too many protections are in place, coddling pitchers through today’s game. It’s the age of specialization, with long relievers and middle relievers and short relievers and closers all in high demand to work in bullpens that used to carry just a couple of relief pitchers.
There are limits on pitches developing players are allowed to throw because God forbid some high-priced prospect should come up with a sore arm.
“There are coaches who signal what pitches his guy on the mound will throw, in what situation, at every level of the sport. There are also ERAs so bloated that bad pitching is the new good in baseball.
“Most of these kids have been told what pitches to throw in what counts in high school and college,” said John, 64, who has worked as a pitching coach in the minor leagues and as a manager in independent league baseball. “They’ve been told what to do. The pitcher never had a chance to think. We need more teaching in the game.
“Maybe Luke Easter would have hit the ball over the wall for a grand slam,” John said of one of his earliest moments of glory. “But I would have learned from it.”
He knows what he’s talking about. John pitched his way to numbers that can rival anyone in the Hall of Fame, even if he’s not in there himself. He had 46 career shutouts. You could take an entire staff of an All-Star team and not find 46 career shutouts today.
John was a four-time All-Star, struck out 2,245 batters and pitched 4,710 1/3 innings.
He did all this without the kind of blazing heat that makes Jugs guns light up, but with a beautiful craftiness built on sheer cunning and guile. Not to mention a patchwork left arm.