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The State Journal- Register (Springfield, IL)
Tommy John, the former Major League Baseball pitcher synonymous with the most groundbreaking surgery in the sport, says what most often leads athletes, particularly younger athletes, to the operating table is overuse.
John, a 288-game winner who pitched for five organizations spanning a 26-year career, said there are other culprits - like pay-to-play travel teams, one-sport specialization and radar guns that measure pitching velocity - that are leading young athletes to get the "Tommy John surgery," in which tendons are grafted from another part of the body onto the damaged elbow.
John and Dr. George Paletta Jr., head orthopedic physician for the St. Louis Cardinals, are in town this weekend as guests of the Springfield Clinic Sports Medicine Department for a symposium at the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation. The two also were presenters at an event Friday at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
John said that a "pitch count" being implemented for this spring's baseball season for the first time by the Illinois High School Association is "a good first step" at addressing the overuse problem. There are no such "pitch counts" for summer and fall travel teams, however, said John, which exacerbates the problem.
"Travel ball is the culprit of the country," insisted John, in a phone interview. "If you could eliminate travel ball, that would be good, but it's a multimillion-dollar business.
"Name me a pitcher in (Major League Baseball) who throws all year-round."
John was a star athlete running track and playing basketball at Gerstmeyer High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, before going on to Indiana State University. He's maintained that forcing kids into one sport at an early age is also a detriment to their development.
John said he would also get rid of radar guns that are particularly relied upon by scouts but don't paint an accurate picture of how good a pitcher can be.
"The only way you're going to get scouted is if you throw 95 to 100 (miles per hour)," he said. "How hard did I throw? I don't know.
"(Hall of Famers) like (Tom) Seaver and (Steve) Carlton threw in the low 90s. Pitching that hard at such a young age is putting more force on your arm than your muscle can absorb."
Some local high school baseball coaches, like Springfield High's Jim Steinwart, weren't immediately sold on the new IHSA "pitch count" rules.
Those rules limit a pitcher to 105 pitches per game. Additionally, there's a sliding scale for rest a pitcher is required to have. A pitcher who throws 76 to 105 pitches, for example, won't be allowed to pitch for four days. That same pitcher can throw up to 90 pitches in a second game in a seven-day period.
"I like to think coaches are educated and take care of their kids," said Steinwart. "As I've heard more about it, I think it's a good idea, But you also have kids with different body types throwing at different velocities.
"The thing that bothers me is that it's a one-size-fits-all."
While he supports the spirit of the rule, James Range acknowledged that smaller high school programs, like Lutheran High School where he coaches, might be hampered more by the "pitch count" rule.
Range pointed out that Lutheran has three or four front-line starters while several others can do relief work. With rainouts and limited game dates, that situation can get tricky, said Range.
"We'll have to adapt to it the best we can," he said.
Range, who grew up in Highland and pitched at Southwest Community College and the University of Illinois Springfield, said he pitched in travel ball from middle school on.
"I threw a lot, but my parents did a good job of not overdoing it," said Range.
Kids at a younger age, he added, also are throwing specialty pitches like change-ups and sliders.
Range agreed that young athletes should be playing more than one sport.
"I've seen kids better than me in baseball work their way up college, then they give it up because they're tired of it," said Range.
"You have kids who are throwing all year-round now," noted Steinwart. "I say play the other sports and use the other muscles."
John, 73, had his surgery in 1974 in the middle of a breakout year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then-team doctor Frank Jobe, John's close friend who died in 2014, recommended the surgery that Jobe had only previously done on polio patients.
Even then, recalled John, Jobe gave the surgery a less than 5 percent chance of working.
John said he also didn't have a regimented rehab and that he simply threw six days a week, at first to his wife, and then to a neighbor as the velocity kicked in.
"I did exercises as if I had a good shoulder," said John. "Ben White (a Dodgers scout) saw me throwing and said, 'You're going to make it back (to the majors) because you're throwing free and easy.'"
John, who pitched 13 more seasons after the surgery, said kids and their parents need to be more realistic about professional baseball.
"There are 10 million kids between the ages of 8 and 18 playing baseball. There are 30 Major League Baseball teams with 12 pitchers on staff. That's 10 million kids looking for 360 jobs.
"You have to be so talented, so lucky and so blessed to make it. I tell them get a scholarship, go to college, maybe play baseball there and then go on with the rest of your life."
- Steven Spearie contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Facebook or Twitter (@StevenSpearie)
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