When Tommy John talks, these young players listen

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06/17/2010 12:00 AM |

Former major league pitcher Tommy John spoke to and joked with the North Fork Ospreys before Saturday night’s game.

James Stone can now put a face — and a voice — with the surgery.

It was about a year ago when the North Fork Ospreys pitcher had so-called Tommy John surgery, a procedure in which a damaged ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from another part of the body.

So, when Stone had the opportunity to meet the man the surgery is named after, he took it. When John, a former major league pitcher, stopped by Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic on Saturday evening to speak with the Ospreys before their Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League game against the Riverhead Tomcats, Stone introduced himself. Stone showed John his scar, and John did likewise. Then, when the two posed for a photo, John unexpectedly pecked Stone on the cheek, drawing laughs from Stone’s teammates.

To young players who never had the opportunity to watch the 67-year-old John pitch, John’s name is known primarily for the surgery, which has proven to be a breakthrough, saving playing careers.

“When you’re a pitcher and you hear, ‘Tommy John,’ you think, ‘No, not that,’ ” said Tomcats pitcher Cooper Smith, whose team met John the day before.

Of course, John had a tremendous playing career that spanned 26 seasons with six major-league teams, most notably the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees. A four-time all-star selection, John finished his playing career in 1989 with a 288-231 record, a 3.34 earned-run average and 2,245 strikeouts. The left-handed sinkerballer ranks seventh in career wins and has the most wins of any pitcher not selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

John has been involved in baseball as a player, coach, manager and broadcaster. He currently sells scoreboards, and is also Hamptons Collegiate Baseball’s senior vice president of development. On Friday, John began a three-day tour of five East End fields to meet players and fans.

“He’s an inspiration for the players we have all over the country,” said Rusty Leaver, the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball founder and president. “They may not know who Tommy John is, but their parents get chills when they see him walk on the field. This guy is a legend around baseball.”

John’s passion for the game still shows when, surrounded by young players, he talks about the game he loves. “I like to BS with the players,” he said.

As a way of illustrating the importance of diligence, John told the Ospreys when he worked for the Yankees he used to hit 75 ground balls a day to Derek Jeter in spring training. “Every day, every single day, and he’s the best in baseball,” said John.

When it comes to memorable moments from his playing career, John offered two that stood out. The first was when he beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 4-1, as the Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1977. “Probably the best game I ever pitched in my life,” he said.

Then there was an emotional event in 1981. John’s two-year-old son, Travis, had fallen 37 feet from a third-floor window. The child bounced off a car fender, swallowed his tongue, and was in a coma for 17 days. Travis made a full recovery and walked out of the hospital after 30 days. The Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, asked John to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for a playoff game that his father happened to be starting. John asked his best friend on the team, Reggie Jackson, to escort his wife and son onto the field. When they walked out, Jackson held Travis up.

“The fans at Yankee Stadium were going, ‘Travis! Travis!’ ” John recalled. “I couldn’t pitch because I was crying. Tears were rolling down my face. That shows you there, talk about Yankees fans, Yankees fans are the best fans around.”

John said there is a little kid in every player, and he cherished the times he spent with teammates.

“That’s what I miss, the camaraderie of going in the clubhouse, being a little kid,” he said. “We did stuff in the clubhouse that I would have spanked my kids for, but when we did it as adults, we were laughing like crazy.”

As for the pioneering surgery he underwent, John indicated that it was a no-brainer. His doctor told him that if he didn’t have the surgery, he would never play again, and if he had the surgery, he probably wouldn’t play again. “I knew that probably was a whole lot better than never, so there was no downside risk,” he said.

Players said they were inspired by John’s visit. “Meeting him was definitely a moment in my life that I’m always going to remember,” said Smith.