Vintage Verlander-Almost a Third NoNo

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Detroit Tiger fans have been wondering over the past couple of seasons what would become of their team, considering that former pitching ace Justin Verlander is signed through 2019 for superstar bucks.  The contract, signed in 2009 seemed like a good idea at the time. Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA in 2011, and followed that with a 17-8 mark and a 2.64 ERA the following year-the last time the Tigers reached the World Series.

Since then however, the numbers have declined to the point where some Motor City wit said Verlander was going for the “Cy Old” award rather than the Cy Young award. This year was the worst yet-only a 1-6 record for a team clearly in decline. Then last night, for a night at least Justin Brooks Verlander looked like the first-round draft choice  the Tigers drafted out of Old Dominion, a school much better known for women’s basketball stars.

The pride of Manakin Sabot, VA. nearly tossed his third no-hitter last night, stopping the Angels cold, 5-0. Only a blue darter, right down the third-base line by Chris Iannetta stood between Verlander and a third no-hitter. Had he pulled it off, he could have joined exclusive company. Only Bob Feller, Cy Young and Larry Corcoran have 3 no-hitters to their names. Sandy Koufax has 4 and Nolan Ryan has 7 on his belt, but no pitcher is likely to approach those numbers any time soon.

Only 3 active pitchers are Verlander’s equal with 2 no-nos: Tin Lincecum of the Giants, Mark Buehrle (pronounced  Burly,) of the Bluejays and Homer Bailey of the Reds who is out for the year following Tommy John surgery in May.

Who Is This Tommy John?

The 3 most used words in modern baseball are not “safe at home,” or “Way outa here,” or any call of a great play. They are Tommy John Surgery. It is as common as flu in a cold climate. Every team seems to have a pitcher who had the operation or  one who needs to get it soon. It is as common as torn ACL ligaments in women’s basketball players. You don’t ask If, you ask Who and When, and how can your team get by without the injured player for the rehab which can take up to two years.

But who is this Tommy John whose name is on the operation? Humorist Jean Shepherd said he went to the Warren G. Harding school, and his fellow students had no idea who Warren G. Harding was. They rammed the name together as WarrenGHarding with no thought to the fact that he was one of America’s less distinguished presidents. Enough years have passed now that pitchers getting Tommy John surgery may not know Tommy John is a living man-a former pitcher and occasional broadcaster. John is 72 years old now, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana. His first taste of the big leagues was on September 6, 1963 with the Indians, and his last was on May 25, 1989 with the Yankees, just after he turned 46. He put up a 288-231 record and an ERA of 3.34. He was an All-Star as early as 1968. But the  show should have ended for Tommy John while he was a member of the Dodgers. He was “dealing,” as pitchers say, showing  a 13-3 record in 1974 when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his pitching elbow. Up until then, if a pitcher did that his career was done. There was no hope.

But Tommy John found a doctor willing to try the impossible. Dr. Frank Job replaced the ruined ligament with a tendon from John’s right arm. This was done at the end of September, 1974.

John joked that “They put in a Koufax fast ball–Mrs. Koufax!” But it was no joke when he took to the hill again in 1976. To the media and fans it was a miracle. He put up a 10-10 mark that year, and a total of 164 wins following the operation. He was an All-Star 3 more times-in 1978 with the Dodgers, 1979 and 1980 both as a Yankee. He pitched in3 World Series-1977, 1978 and 1981, never claiming a World championship ring. John called it a career after Mark McGwire got two hits off him in a 1989 contest. McGwire was the son of John’s dentist, leading him to joke “When your dentist’s kid starts hitting you it’s time to retire.” With his sense of humor it seems odd that he didn’t broadcast more than he did-some TV with the Twins, some on ABC and one game for the Yankees at the end of 1998. Even harder to understand is how this man whose willingness to face pioneering surgery would go on to  save the careers of so many future pitchers does not have a place in the Hall of Fame. But that’s just baseball as I see it.


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