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.

Dee Gordon’s suspension is likely to lead to a call for harsher PED penalties

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Associated Press
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Objectively speaking there is no difference between Dee Gordon’s suspension for PEDs and anyone else’s. Abraham Almonte, for example. Or Cameron Maybin. Or David Rollins. All were guys who got their 80 games, served their time, came back and whose cases didn’t raise too much of a fuss. But Gordon’s suspension will almost certainly be talked about longer and more loudly and will likely lead to calls for harsher penalties and changes to the PED suspension rules.

Part of it is simply fame. He’s a pretty big name as far as these things go. The biggest since the Biogenesis guys a couple of years ago. He won the batting title last year. He’s the son of a famous major leaguer. There is a direct correlation between the volume and intensity of the narratives applied to one’s story and the fame of the subject of the story. For that reason alone Gordon’s story will last longer and loom larger.

Another reason — a bigger reason, I think — is timing. Gordon was seen by many to have had a breakout season in 2015 and, when it was over, he was rewarded for it with a nice five-year $50 million deal. The narrative will arise by, oh, 9AM today, that the suspension was “worth it” for Gordon and that he cashed in because of it, rendering his suspension a mere slap on the wrist. This is especially true given that his deal is severely backloaded. He’ll lose less than $2 million in salary in 2016 while collecting the other $48 million-plus. Totally worth it!

I understand why people will say that, but such a stance has some serious flaws. Among them:

  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows when Gordon began to take PEDs;
  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows how, in fact, Gordon’s performance was actually enhanced;
  • It forgets that lots and lots of people were talking about how Gordon’s “breakout season” was actually 2014, not 2015, rendering that whole “he juiced and then got his money” argument fairly problematic.

Those points will likely be ignored as arguments in favor of harsher penalties grow louder. Ken Rosenthal reminds us this morning that some have called for some form of contract voiding or clawing back of more money than just the salary earned while on suspension. Those calls too will likely grow louder. There will also be calls for changes in the appeal process. Like this one, which came moments after Gordon’s suspension was announced:

When you have an actual union member angrily call for the repeal of a collectively-bargained protection in punishment situations, you’re sort of through the looking glass. Or past a tipping point. Or something. You’re certainly in a world where the usual dynamics between employer and employee are not operative and, as a result, changes are inevitable. As we noted recently, players today are perhaps more adamantly anti-PED than the owners and the league are. They’re competitors reacting to cheating by their competition. The fuel for stronger penalties is likely to come more from them than anyone.

The union and the league will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year. Performance enhancing drugs and their penalties will be a part of that. Expect harsher penalties and possibly different sorts of rules altogether. Expect Dee Gordon to be the poster child for these changes, even if his case is no different in form than that of Abraham Almonte, Cameron Maybin, or David Rollins. Expect emotion, rather than logic, to lead the coming debate.

And That Happened: Thursdays scores and highlights

Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Arodys Vizcaino, right, is congratulated by catcher Tyler Flowers after earning a save during a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Thursday, April 28, 2016. The Braves defeated the Red Sox 5-3. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
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Gonna mail this one in this morning. Partially because of the light slate of games yesterday, partially because of a late night for me but mostly because of the Dee Gordon news which has me thinking of a lot of other things I want to write about this AM.

It’s worth noting that the Braves won a game. It comes just ahead of a series at Wrigley against the Cubs, so the winning streak will likely last a single day, but the 2016 Braves have to take what they can get.

The Marlins had a notable night outside the Gordon news too, finishing off a sweep of the Dodgers, which had to make Don Mattingly happy. For what it’s worth, Gordon singled in a run and then came around to score in the seventh. His RBI tied it and the run he scored ended up being the one necessary for the Marlins’ margin of victory. That means nothing, but you know some jackwagons are gonna make a big deal out of that and I figured I’d get ahead of the jackwagons and note that, yes, Gordon and the Marlins knew what was coming before it was announced because that’s how the appeals process works, but no, it makes no difference, because that’s how the appeals process works.

Anyway: Here are the rest of the scores:

Tigers 7, Athletics 3
Cubs 7, Brewers 2
Phillies 3, Nationals 0
Orioles 10, White Sox 2
Braves 5, Red Sox 3
Diamondbacks 3, Cardinals 0
Marlins 5, Dodgers 3
Pirates vs. Rockies — POSTPONED
: In the early morning rain with a dollar in my hand. And an aching in my heart, and my pockets full of sand. I’m a long way from home, and I miss my loved one so. In the early morning rain with no place to go.

Marlins 2B Dee Gordon suspended 80 games for PEDs

deegordon
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LOS ANGELES — Dee Gordon has been suspended 80 games by Major League Baseball after the Miami Marlins second baseman tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

Gordon tested positive for exogenous Testosterone and Clostebol, MLB said in a release after the Marlins’ 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday night.

The fleet-footed Gordon won the National League batting title by hitting .333 last season and signed a $50 million, 5-year deal with Miami in January. He’s made two All-Star teams in his six seasons and won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards at second base last year.

Gordon, the son of former major league pitcher Tom Gordon, had a key hit in Miami’s win over the Dodgers on Thursday. He’s batting .266 with six stolen bases this season.

Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Marlins president David Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did. He is an important member of this organization and will be for many years to come. It’s a huge, huge disappointment to the kids, to our fans, to his teammates and to everyone in our organization every single day.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization. But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

Devon Travis will start taking at-bats in extended spring training

Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis hits a RBI double to center field against the Tampa Bay Rays during third inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 15, 2015 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)  MANDATORY CREDIT
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis underwent left shoulder surgery last September. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm caught up with Jays head athletic trainer George Poulis for updates on several injured players, including Travis. Here’s what Poulis had to say about Travis:

“He’s going to get some live at-bats with the extended team down in Florida on Friday. Big step for him, he’s very excited, he’s doing great, and we’re very optimistic, but no timeline right now on his return. We’re just going day by day, step by step.

“When you have something like that, it continues to heal even when you’re playing. We’re just trying to acclimate him and condition him to withstand all of the stress that he’s going to put on his shoulder … He won’t play in the field right now. We’ll mix that in, as well, but right now he’s just going to get some at-bats.”

The key phrase, of course, is “no timetable”. The second baseman’s rehab has gone slower than expected. Getting into some extended spring training games, though, signals progress.

Travis, 25, broke out last season, hitting .304/.361/.498 with eight home runs and 35 RBI in 239 plate appearances last season. The Jays have had Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney handle second base duties this year, but their aggregate .560 OPS is the worst mark in the American League.