For baseball fans that are under the age of 35, Tommy John means a surgery that’s saved the careers of countless pitchers.
For baseball fans that go back a little further, Tommy John pitched for 26 years and won 288 Major League Baseball games with his unique left-handed delivery.
For this story, Tommy John is a new San Diego chiropractor who has a unique way of helping the human body heal itself.
Oh, and Tommy John is also a boat, so let’s start this tale there.
Dr. Tommy John III is the son of that 288-game winner and a chiropractor who was living in Chicago, looking for a place with better weather. So he came to Southern California and decided on San Diego. Any doubts about the move were erased when he was with a friend at Seaport Village.
“I’m facing Downtown, she’s facing the boats,” says Dr. John. “All of a sudden she says, ‘Oh My Gosh!’ I looked over her shoulder and there’s a boat … Tommy John. I freak out; sprint to the boat, get there and there’s a guy working on it.”
Here’s how the resulting conversation actually went:
TJ III: “Do you own this?”
Boat Guy: “No, what’s up?”
TJ III: “Well my name’s Tommy John.”
BG: “Yeah but you’re not the Dodger pitcher Tommy John.”
TJ III: “Well actually that’s my dad.”
The boat individual came down off the boat to shake Dr. John’s hand and share a little more information.
“Three owners ago the original builder, in 1978, was a huge Dodger fan and named it after your dad,” says John, quoting the man. “I was so moved emotionally with everything that was going on in my life, I almost threw up. If you bottled that air you could probably sell it with this story.”
It’s fitting that Tommy John III is setting up shop with a new chiropractic practice in Scripps Ranch (11633 Sorrento Valley Rd., Suite 1B). San Diego is a baseball hotbed, and his family’s name has become synonymous with baseball.
Dr. John was, like his father, a professional ballplayer. In high school he was the Minnesota State Player of the Year and attended Furman University, where he started having arm trouble, too. John III suffered a shoulder infection from a dye injection, needed a pair of surgeries and after a few years in the minor leagues he found a new calling. He’d become drawn to how the body heals itself and self-regulates.
He believes everyone’s body works and learns differently and tries to approach medical care that way.
“I can’t force that in,” says Dr. John. “A measurement on one person is not a measurement on somebody else. My role is removing some stuff and then just kind of stepping to the side and you do all the cool stuff. Just like Dr. Jobe did (the surgery) to my dad and then just said TJ, go ahead and then TJ had to figure it out.”
Dr. Frank Jobe is the man who first performed a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament using the Palmaris longs tendon. Since that does not exactly roll off the tongue and the man who was willing to be his first subject was Tommy John, the name stuck. But there was no rehabilitation program for something like this so TJ had to come up with something on his own.
What he figured out was a workout program that included 2500 repetitions of certain shoulder exercises every day. What most people don’t know is before the ligament snapped Tommy John had 10 years of elbow pain, enduring 40 cortisone shots, before his arm finally gave in.
So now here comes Tommy’s son specializing in soft tissue injuries but that really is a coincidence.
“I wasn’t led by (what my father went through). I was just around it and all of a sudden things started to attract me.”
Both Tommys now have a common goal: keeping as many young players from the procedure as possible. Over the last four years there have been 129 players who had the procedure done. Over the first 25 years of the operation’s existence there were 131 players who had it done. The Johns think they know the root of the problem.
“These big leaguers that are getting injured never had the childhood development that they were supposed to have like the ones of 30 years ago,” says Dr. John. His legendary dad agrees.
“You can throw when it’s baseball season,” says Tommy John the 288-game winner. “But right now it’s not baseball season, it’s football season. Play football, play soccer, play basketball. These kids are getting injured because they throw 12 months a year and your arm’s not made for that.”
The proliferation of travel ball teams and a Major League premium on velocity have kids trying to throw harder and longer than ever before. World-renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who has worked on MLB All-Stars and NFL Pro Bowlers, has even performed the UCL reconstruction on elementary school kids that have already blown out their elbows.
“The big leaguers are going to be big leaguers no matter what,” says Dr. John. “If they’re in a cave they’re going to be a big leaguer. It doesn’t matter because that level is so high. When they get injured, though, that’s when we need to figure out what they missed in their childhood development. Now they’re back at that infantile state and they have to earn coming back. And that’s why we’re seeing Tommy John two and three times on people.”
Unless something changes, and fast, the number of players at the youth, high school and professional levels will continue to rise.
“It’s only going to get crazier and much worse,” says Dr. John. “The rates are going to be freakish whether you control pitch counts, whether you go to a six-man rotation, all those efforts like symptom chasing, stretch this is like trying to change the weather to prevent frostbite instead of putting on a coat and gloves.”
Tommy John the 26-year big leaguer sees the massive paydays of today’s elite players and fears parents may be feeding the problem by looking at their kids with dollar signs in their eyes.
“They think that their little Johnny is going to be the next Zack Greinke or David Price or Clayton Kershaw but if you look at the numbers there are roughly 3-million kids that play little league baseball worldwide and in the Major Leagues there are only 750 players. Does that mean you don’t play? No, you play. But you’ve got to know when you’ve reached your limit. The parents see this and they think their kid is going to be the next $200 million pitcher and it’s the farthest thing from the truth.”
The elder Tommy now lives in Palm Springs, not a long drive from his son’s practice in Scripps Ranch. He was pitching for the Dodgers when he had his procedure. His son was born in Fullerton. So it seems all too fitting that they’ve returned to Southern California to leave a mark on the baseball community. This time, though, they’re determined to make sure it’s not a surgery scar.