AP FRANK JOBE

Gary Nolan one of many careers saved by Dr. Frank Jobe

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By now, most baseball fans know the story of Tommy John surgery. In 1974, John — a solid pitcher for a decade — blew out his elbow while pitching for Los Angeles against the Montreal Expos. “Blew out his elbow” is not a medical term, of course, but there was no need for medical terms when it came to pitchers in 1974. Once a pitcher tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, he was finished. That was exactly what Tommy John had done.

In John’s case, though, a pioneer was watching. Frank Jobe grew up in North Carolina, became interested in medicine while serving as a medical supplies supply sergeant in the army during World War II (and while watching doctors patch up soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge), served as a family doctor until his interests turned toward orthopedics. When he saw John’s elbow pop, he was the Dodgers orthopedic doctor. And he had this wild idea about replacing John’s torn elbow ligament with a healthy one already in his body.

Jobe famously gave John a 100-to-1 chance of ever pitching again. John eagerly took those odds; a one-percent chance is, after all, better than zero. As it turned out, the odds were much better than 100-to-1. John came back and pitched better with the new ligament than he had with the old. And a baseball revolution began. The list of pitchers who have had their careers saved by Tommy John surgery is mind-boggling — there is a movement to put Dr. Frank Jobe in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and certainly there are few who have impacted the game more.

That’s the obvious story to recount today, one day after Frank Jobe died at the age of 88. But there’s another Frank Jobe story I discovered while writing The Machine that is, perhaps, just as telling about the man.

Gary Nolan was a brilliant young pitcher. Few remember him that way, but Nolan was a phenom in the same class as Bob Feller or Dwight Gooden. He was 18 years old when he made his first start in the big leagues — he and Feller are the only two pitchers in baseball history to strike out 10 or more big league batters in a game before they turned 19 years old. Nolan as an 18/19 year old had a lower ERA, better WHIP, more strikeouts and fewer walks than the National League Rookie of the Year — a pretty fair pitcher named Tom Seaver.

“Don’t be scared,” Feller had told the kid that first year. “Make them scared of you.”

Not long after that, Nolan’s arm began to hurt. It was this sharp pain that made him wince with every throw. He couldn’t stay out there. He made just 22 starts his second year, 15 his third. But what hurt even more was this: Nobody believed him. Doctors had looked at his arm in the primitive way that doctors looked at arms in those days, and they found nothing wrong. Of course doctors didn’t KNOW that they were looking at arms in primitive ways, so they felt sure that there was nothing wrong … except in Gary Nolan’s head.

“Pitchers have to throw with pain,” his Reds manager Sparky Anderson told him. “Bob Gibson says every pitch he’s ever thrown cut him like a knife. You gotta pitch with pain, kid.”

This cut harder than the jolting pain in his arm. The Reds — this included doctors, management but, more painfully, his teammates — thought he simply wasn’t tough enough. Rub a little dirt on it. Grit your teeth and bear it. Pitch through the pain. He tried because that’s what was expected. He pitched 250 agonizing innings in 1970, 244 more in 1971. He grew so used to the sharp pain, that he simply came to think of it as normal. In 1972 he was having a poor-man’s version of the legendary season Steve Carlton was having in Philadelphia.

At the end of July:

Nolan: 14-6, 1.71 ERA, 152 innings, 78 strikeouts, 28 walks, .228 batting average against.
Carlton: 15-6, 2.37 ERA, 205 innings, 208 strikeouts, 54 walks, .206 batting average against.

And then the pain climbed to a higher plane. It was too much. He couldn’t handle it. The reporters asked him how much it hurt. “Enough to make you cry,” he said. Teammates rolled their eyes. Letters to the editor in the Cincinnati papers questioned his manhood.

“When’s Nolan going to pitch again?” reporters asked Sparky Anderson.

“Hell, I don’t know. Ask him,” Sparky barked angrily.

It was at this time that the Reds did one of the most bizarre things a baseball team has ever done. Reds executive Dick Wagner called Nolan and said they had figured out a way to fix his arm. They were sending Nolan to … a dentist. Yeah. A dentist. Some crackpot dentist had reached the Reds with the message that Nolan’s arm problems were clearly the result of an abscessed tooth. Nolan actually went to the dentist. The dentist actually pulled a tooth. This really happened, not in the Dark Ages but in 1972. It’s probably lucky that the Dentist didn’t pull out leeches. The pain, strangely, did not go away. Nolan pitched two games in 1973 and he did not pitch at all in 1974. His career seemed over. And he felt dead.

Then, in desperation, Nolan went to see Frank Jobe, orthopedic doctor for the Reds’ biggest rivals, the Dodgers. The Reds, of course, were opposed to this … but Nolan had reached the desperate point where he would try anything. He, like every other pitcher in baseball, had heard Jobe was different from other doctors. The first thing Nolan noticed was that Jobe took an X-Ray of Nolan’s shoulder from a different angle. This was new. And because of that, Jobe found what every other doctor had missed — a one-inch bone spur floating around in Nolan’s shoulder and slicing him every single time he threw a baseball.

Finding the bone spur and getting rid of it, of course, are two different things … but Jobe thought removing it was considerably less complicated than replacing Tommy John’s torn elbow ligament. The Reds, of course, were opposed to the surgery. They thought he could pitch through the pain. It really is staggering how disposable baseball players were to teams in those days. Jobe performed the surgery. And Nolan — though he could never be as brilliant as he was at 19 — no longer felt the pain and he came back to the Big Red Machine and won 15 games in 1975, another 15 in 1976 for two of the greatest teams in baseball history.

But the extraordinary thing is how Gary Nolan looks back not at the career-saving surgery itself but at something entirely different. He looks back and sees the kindness of Frank Jobe. For six or seven years, Nolan had been treated as something less than a man. He’d had his pain mocked and his toughness doubted. He’d been told again and again and again that the agony was all in his head, that it was his duty to pitch through it, and this false aura of fragility had come to define him in the eyes of American baseball fans.

Then, this soft-spoken doctor from North Carolina came back from the X-Rays and pointed at the source of all that pain — there it was, as real as a swing and miss strikeout.

“I have no idea how you pitched in that sort of pain,” Frank Jobe said to him. “You must have been in agony.”

Thirty-five years later, Gary Nolan could still recite those two sentences, word-for-word.

Study: West teams at a disadvantage due to jet lag

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - JULY 14:  A Delta airlines plane is seen as it comes in for a landing at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on July 14, 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Delta Air Lines Inc. reported that their second quarter earnings rose a better-than-expected 4.1%, and also announced that they decided to reduce its United States to Britian capacity on its winter schedule because of foreign currency issues and the economic uncertainty from Brexit.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Every year, when the schedules are released, we often hear about the teams that have it worst. Almost always, those teams are West teams. According to MLB.com, teams in the West division of their respective leagues had the top eight most travel-heavy schedules in 2016. The full list:

Team League Division Miles
Mariners AL West 47,704
Angels AL West 44,945
Athletics AL West 42,119
Rangers AL West 41,128
Dodgers NL West 40,294
Giants NL West 39,341
Astros AL West 38,553
Padres NL West 37,363
Rays AL East 36,916
Red Sox AL East 36,896
D-Backs NL West 35,312
Yankees AL East 35,252
Marlins NL East 35,226
Rockies NL West 33,287
Blue Jays AL East 32,895
Orioles AL East 32,322
Braves NL East 29,236
Royals AL Central 29,077
Twins AL Central 28,948
Phillies NL East 28,351
Mets NL East 26,832
White Sox AL Central 26,538
Cardinals NL Central 26,451
Pirates NL Central 26,134
Brewers NL Central 25,620
Tigers AL Central 25,450
Indians AL Central 25,176
Reds NL Central 25,108
Nationals NL East 24,664
Cubs NL Central 24,271

The averages by division:

  • AL East: 34,856 miles
  • AL Central: 25,176
  • AL West: 42,890
  • NL East: 28,862
  • NL Central: 25,517
  • NL West: 37,119

The maps aren’t up for 2017 yet, but rest assured that West teams will once again have it worst. It’s easy to see why, taking a look at the map on MLB.com. If you draw a line to split Texas in half and go straight up through North Dakota, there are only eight teams to the left of that line, leaving the other 23 condensed on the right side. When West teams aren’t playing intra-division games, they are traveling. That’s often not the case for East and Central teams. The Phillies and Pirates, for example, don’t even have to leave the state to play each other.

As Gizmodo points out, a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a link between jet lag and performance. Sleep scientist Ravi Allada of Northwestern University analyzed 4,919 games, finding that teams that traveled East performed worse than those that traveled West. Allada and his colleagues adjusted for home field advantage and park effects.

Specifically, teams that traveled from the West to the East lost more often than East teams traveling West. They gave up more runs and scored less runs. They hit for a lower batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. They gave up more home runs, accounting for most of the decline in run prevention.

There was a peculiar finding. Allada found that jet lagged home teams performed worse than jet lagged visiting teams. He hypothesizes that “teams may be more cognizant of their schedules when traveling away, thus mitigating jet lag effects,” he told Gizmodo.

The Braves ask Cobb County for $14 million more

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The Braves’ new ballpark in Cobb County Georgia is the gift that keeps on taking.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Braves have asked Cobb County for $14 million for roads, walkways and other pedestrian improvements around the stadium the team has already paid for but which it says the county is responsible. The county says it’s not responsible for them and that it has already paid nearly $70 million for transportation improvements around the ballpark, including on privately-owned property in the mixed-use development.

The reason this isn’t settled: at the time the deal between the county and the team was struck, there was a provision for the county to pay for $14 million for certain improvements. The Braves, this past September, told the county that it wants to be reimbursed for these projects under that provision and that the $70 million the county has already spent shouldn’t count. For reasons, I guess. It’s a bit complicated, but the AJC story lays it out pretty well. The upshot seems to be “why didn’t the Braves say they wanted the county to pay for these things long ago?”

The answer to that question, I suspect, is “because the Braves have been treated as entitled corporate welfare recipients since this deal was announced and they have learned that they can get away with almost anything.”