Wednesday, October 24, 2012

#451 - Tommy John

A guy I used to work with always said never to trust a person with two first names. But this guy always seemed pretty honest. Still over a year before his famous surgery, Tommy John looks like he’s in a bit of pain at Shea. That look sort of belies the season he was undergoing. After experiencing a season-ending injury in his first year in LA in ’72, Tommy put any fears regarding his comeback to rest early in the ’73 season and went on to record his best record – until then - in his new town mostly through immaculate control (only 50 walks in 220 innings). Then in ’74 things were going even better: the Dodgers were chugging to the NL West title behind Andy Messersmith (11-2 at the break) and Tommy (11-3) when in his final start before the All-Star game his arm “went dead.” It would be his final game of the season – fortunately for LA Don Sutton filled the gap by going an amazing 13-1 after the break – and when it was discovered by team doctor Frank Jobe that Tommy had an ulnar nerve problem, Tommy made the very unusual decision to go under the knife. History was born in the ensuing operation but it would take a while to reveal its legacy.

Tommy John grew up in Indiana which means that he played basketball. He was apparently good enough to get recruited by Kentucky and is listed on some sites as playing for Indiana State. I have been unable to verify that and according to Wikipedia Tommy attended ISU but never actually played there, which seems more plausible. What he did do, after an illustrious high school run as a pitcher during which he was 28-2, was sign with Cleveland in ’61.  His money pitch back then was a curveball and his first summer in D ball he went 10-4 with a 3.17 ERA. In ’62 he had control issues and put up a record of 8-10 with a 4.06 ERA in a season split between A and Triple A. Then in ’63 he rallied to go 15-10 with a 2.60 ERA split between Double A and Triple A and made his debut up top that September, posting a nice ERA in three starts and some bullpen work. In ’64 Tommy began the season in Cleveland, was told to add a slider to his pitch arsenal, and posted not great numbers while instituting his new pitch. By mid-year he was back in Triple A where his numbers only improved to 6-6 but with a 4.26 ERA. The following January Cleveland sent Tommy, Tommie Agee, and John Romano to the White Sox in a three-team deal in which the team picked up former star Rocky Colavito from Kansas City. According to the book “The Curse of Rocky Colavito,” it was the Tribe’s worst trade since they traded Colavito away.

With the White Sox, John moved to a team that had much better defense and with his slider a year older his numbers improved markedly since most of his outs were ground ball ones. He won 14 each of his first two years and his ERA improved each of his first four seasons. In both ’66 and ’67 he led the AL in shutouts. In ’68 he was having an excellent season though the team wasn’t doing too well when in August Dick McAuliffe charged the mound after he thought Tommy threw at him. John defended himself but during the tumble separated his shoulder and missed the rest of the season. When he returned the next year the club was in the midst of a bad run and over the next three seasons he posted losing records with escalated ERA’s – though they were well better than league averages – and even had control issues. In ’70 he led the AL in wild pitches. After the ’71 season he went to the NL and the Dodgers with Steve Huntz for Dick Allen. Tommy’s renaissance in LA was pretty complete as he posted a record of 40-15 with a 2.89 ERA in three years before he got hurt. In ’72 he missed a bunch of starts due to an elbow injury incurred while running the bases and in both ’73 and ’74 he led the NL in winning percentage. Given his future success in the post-season his loss during the ’74 Series was probably significant.

After the operation and a long rehab in ’75 John returned to the mound in ’76 and in 31 starts went 10-10 with a 3.09 ERA to win NL Comeback Player of the Year. He improved on those numbers by winning 20 in ’77 and 17 in ’78 and both years finally got post-season work, killing the Phillies in the NL Playoffs, and going 1-1 in the Series against the Yankees. After the ’78 season he became a free agent and signed almost immediately with his former Series opponents. In NY Tommy kicked off with probably his two finest seasons, going a combined 43-18 with a 3.20 ERA in ’79 and ’80. In the ’81 strike year he went 9-8 with his best NY ERA of 2.63 and that year faced his former mates in the Series. In ’82 he was 10-10 by August when he was traded to California for Dennis Rasmussen and then went 4-2 during the Angels’ stretch run. But from then through mid-’85 he went only a combined 20-30 with an escalated ERA and then was picked up off waivers by Oakland for whom he went 2-6 the second half of ’85. Tommy then returned to the Yankees as a free agent at age 43 where after a short stint in the minors he went 5-3 with a 2.93 ERA in ’86. He followed that up with a 13-6 season in ’87 and then went 11-15 as he finished up his career the next two years. When he was done in ’89 Tommy was 288-231 lifetime with a 3.34 ERA with 162 complete games and 46 shutouts. He appeared in four All-Star games and in the post-season was 6-3 with a 2.65 ERA in 14 games.

After playing John took off a year in ’90 to write and promote an autobiography. In ’91 he became the baseball coach at Westminster Academy, a school in Florida attended by his three sons. He stayed there through ’94 when he became a broadcaster for the Twins which he did through the ’96 season. From ’97 to 2006 he was mostly affiliated with the Charlotte Knights, a Triple A team for whom he did announcing and some coaching. When not with the Knights he broadcast Yankee games (’98) and was a pitching coach in the Montreal system (2002-’03) and manager of the Staten Island Yankees (’04).  After the Knights he moved to manager of the independent Bridgeport Bluefish for whom he went 159-176 from 2007 to ’09. He left that gig to take a sales and contact job with Sportable Scoreboards.

Tommy took his lifetime record above .500 in ’73 and shows a bunch of admirably low walk totals. Both years he was injured (’68 and ’72) look like they could have been his two best seasons.

A battery-mate helps in this hook-up:

1. John and Bob Boone ’82 to ’84 Angels;
2. Boone and Richie Hebner ’77 to ’78 Phillies.

1 comment:

  1. We're finally to the first card I ever saw.

    It's always been strange to me that John played for other teams before the Dodgers.