By IAN WILSON
He’s a man known much more for the surgery that’s named after him than his stellar pitching career.
But Edmonton baseball fans got to know Tommy John – the person – a bit during his time with the Triple-A team in Alberta’s capital city.
In November of 2002, the Trappers announced the coaching staff for the Pacific Coast League (PCL) club for the upcoming season, including new manager Dave Huppert and John as pitching coach.
“Even people that don’t know baseball know the name Tommy John,” Dennis Henke, the assistant general manager of the Trappers, told the Edmonton Journal newspaper.
Henke was referring to what commonly became known as “Tommy John surgery,” an operation on the throwing arm that repairs the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) by replacing the torn ligament with a tendon from another part of the body.
John was a test subject for the medical procedure when he had it done on Sept. 25th, 1974. He was the first baseball player to have the surgery done on his elbow and he went into it knowing that he might never pitch again.
By that point the 31-year-old was more than a decade into his Major League Baseball (MLB) career, serving as a reliable starting pitcher with both the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. He was named an All-Star with the White Sox in 1968.
After the surgery – which has since been performed on thousands of pitchers and is a common occurrence for moundsmen from the college level all the way to the pros – he played another 14 years and was named an All-Star three more times.
Through 26 total seasons in the majors, including extended stops with the New York Yankees and California Angels, John won 288 games and collected 2,245 Ks in over 4,700 innings of work. The southpaw finished second in Cy Young Award voting twice, with both strong campaigns coming after his elbow surgery. Not surprisingly, when he returned to play for the Dodgers he was named the 1976 National League (NL) Comeback Player of the Year, as well as the winner of the Hutch Award, given annually to an MLB player who best displays “fighting spirit and competitive desire.”
When he finally did stop pitching at the age of 46, John took a job as a broadcaster for the Minnesota Twins and the Yankees in the 1990s. The Montreal Expos thought he had more to offer the game and hired him as a pitching coach for their Double-A team in 2002. When they became the parent club of the Trappers the following year, the Expos gave the Indiana native a promotion to their top affiliate in Edmonton.
“I’ve been around baseball for 21 years, and people like (John) are good for baseball,” noted Henke.
With the Trappers in 2003, John was handling a pitching staff that included major leaguers like Claudio Vargas, Blake Stein, Roy Corcoran, T.J. Tucker, Vic Darensbourg, Richie Lewis, Scott Downs and Sun-Woo Kim.
“What I ask my pitchers to do, they know that I’ve tried it,” John told Journal reporter Collin Gallant.
“And I have a lot of empathy for the guys that aren’t ‘on’ in a particular game … when they pitch poorly, no matter how bad it looks, I’ve done that; probably worse.”
One topic that seldom came up when John was with the Trappers was the surgery he was known for, said Britt Reames, a starting pitcher and reliever for Edmonton who took the mound for the Montreal Expos for three seasons.
“It’s funny, but the surgery is the one thing we don’t really talk about,” said Reames.
“Tommy can tell the stories … but when talking about pitching he makes everything simple. He’ll see something that’s going wrong and confront you with it, help you figure it out.”
John became a reliable interview subject when reporters sought out post-game analysis and he was also a well-rounded sports fan.
TALKING HOCKEY AND FOOTBALL
He became an admirer of the National Hockey League (NHL) teams in the New York area when he pitched for the Yankees. John golfed regularly with Islander legends Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies, as well as John McMullen, who was then the owner of the New Jersey Devils.
During his first trip to Edmonton in 1983 for an exhibition game between the Angels and the Trappers at Commonwealth Stadium, John and his teammates received hockey sticks that were autographed by Oiler superstar Wayne Gretzky. He considered that piece of sports memorabilia one of his most prized possessions.
John also expressed a fondness for the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Part of the reason for that was because one of the television stations he grew up watching in Indiana broadcast CFL games in the area.
“One of the independent TV stations used to carry CFL football on Saturday and I would watch it over college football,” John told Journal reporter Norm Cowley.
The lefty pitcher also went to school with Jerry Sturm, who played for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1958 and the Calgary Stampeders in 1959-1960. The offensive lineman also suited up in the National Football League (NFL) in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think it was unique that the NFL said Warren Moon couldn’t play,” said John.
“They said he was too small and couldn’t do this and that, and then he comes up here and throws for 8,000 miles of passing and then goes down to the NFL and has a tremendous career with the (Houston) Oilers. It just proves that, sometimes, the scouts can be wrong.”
Added John: “I just enjoy watching it … I like the three-down rule. It adds a little more offence into the game. I like the rouge, the one-point … there’s a lot of little things. I like the wider field and the longer field because, in the NFL, they get down to the red zone and they can’t score. Here, when you get into the red zone at the 10-yard-line, you’ve got almost 40 yards to the end of the end zone or something like that.”
John also got to know Bob O’Billovich when he was with the Bronx Bombers and O’Billovich was coaching the Toronto Argonauts in the 1980s.
“I just read his name and I just thought it was a neat name, so I just wanted to meet him,” John explained in the Journal.
“The Yankees would go in and play the Blue Jays and I would go to his office and sit and talk with him all the time.”
As comfortable as John was discussing other sports, his best insights were saved for the ball diamond.
“I would rather see Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens go at it than two schmucks who can’t throw the ball over the plate and it ends up 17-10,” said John after a a pair of 1-0 losses in May.
“But the average fan would like to see it 17-10 and played in two hours and 15 minutes.”
When the Trappers choked away a 7-2 lead in the ninth inning and handed the Las Vegas 51s an unlikely 11-7 win in July, John was not at a loss for words.
“It was like, ‘OK, all you’ve got to do is do what you’re supposed to do and the ball game is over.’ I mean, it’s over because the odds of them scoring enough runs in that one inning is remote,” remarked the pitching coach.
“With a five-run lead, you would expect that the 25th, 26th and 27th outs would be a lot easier to come by and they weren’t,” added John.
“But, when you’re pitching behind in the count, they become even better hitters than what they normally are. The momentum got on their side and then we couldn’t turn it off.”
John continued by pointing out some of the differences between baseball and other sports.
“You can’t go into a prevent defence and run the clock out,” he told the Journal, referring to football.
“You can’t go to a four-corners and stall the game out like they do in basketball. With the shot clock, you can take 22 seconds before you shoot and run the clock down. In baseball, there’s no such thing. You’ve got to make 27 outs. The pitcher still has to throw strikes, as we didn’t do, and you still have to catch the ball.”
PRAISE FOR PLAYERS
Whatever the observation, John typically reserved compassion for his players tasked with climbing the bump and delivering pitches towards home plate.
After Korean hurler Seung Song was tagged with eight runs and didn’t make it out of the second inning in a mid-August start, the Indiana State University alum didn’t point the finger at the 23-year-old.
“He made some good pitches and the good ones got hit,” John said.
“When the good ones get hit, you’ve got no chance.”
And like all good pitchers, John offered praise to his backstops, as well.
Veteran catcher Randy Knorr was at the last stop of his pro playing career in Edmonton. He was a member of the back-to-back World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays and suited up for a handful of other MLB teams before framing pitches for the Trappers in 2003 and 2004.
“Here’s a guy who’s caught pitchers like Jimmy Key and Dave Stewart,” said John of the former Medicine Hat Blue Jay.
“He knows what’s going on out there and he really handles the staff.”
The Trappers had a winning season in 2003, putting together a 73-69 record on the PCL circuit. Expectations were high for the defending champions heading into the postseason but a first-round exit in a sweep by the Sacramento River Cats ended any hopes of Edmonton winning a fifth league title.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people will remember these last three games and that’s not indicative of the way that we played all year,” noted John in the Journal.
“You would have liked to have gone farther, but this was a very good ball club here. They didn’t make any mistakes and we made them all.”
While Knorr contemplated a return to the Trappers (he ultimately did come back for one more season behind the plate in Edmonton), John appeared to have his sights set on a return to the broadcast booth.
“I’m going to call a guy who does a lot of stuff in the television and radio industry and see if there are any options,” said John, who was honoured with a bobblehead doll giveaway during one of the Trapper home games at Telus Field.
Instead of putting on the headset, John accepted a manager job with the Single-A Staten Island Yankees in the New York-Penn League for the 2004 season. A stint managing in the Atlantic League for a few seasons followed.
Tommy John is no longer involved in baseball, but he’ll forever be associated with the game.