Strom reflects on unique connection to Tommy John
Astros pitching coach was second to undergo operation by famous surgeon Jobe
VIERA, Fla. -- Being the second baseball pitcher to undergo ulnar collateral ligament replacement surgery meant that Brent Strom has stayed pretty anonymous throughout the course of his playing and coaching career. The same can't be said for Tommy John, the man who was the first to undergo the landmark procedure that now bears his name.
About 35 years after undergoing the operation, Strom believes fate might have gotten this one just right.
"Let's hope it wasn't 'Brent Strom Surgery,' because then you'd get 22 wins instead of 288," said Strom, in his first year as the Astros' pitching coach.
The surgery, which has been performed on thousands of pitchers through the years and saved multiple careers, was pioneered by Dr. Frank Jobe, who died Thursday at 88 years old, and in his 50th season with the Dodgers.
"Obviously, he impacted me in the fact that I can still throw a baseball at age 65," Strom said. "I wasn't able to get back to the level of proficiency that Tommy John was, but he had more skills that I did. I had been released by the Padres and opted to take on this chance to make a comeback, and it got me back to Triple-A."
Strom played five seasons in the Major Leagues, going 22-39 with a 3.95 ERA in 100 games (75 starts) with the Padres, Mets and Indians. He had the surgery in 1979 -- four years after John -- at 31 years old and came back to win 11 games for the Astros' Triple-A affiliate in Tucson. He played in two games in 1981 and retired as a player.
"When I had that done and never made it back to the big leagues," he said, "I think that was more of a case of, I was mediocre to begin with. To this day, I can still throw and my arm is healthy and no pain. In a sense, not quite as dramatic as what Tommy did, but I was a guinea pig and helped advance the surgery, I guess."
When Strom got injured, he said he was using every method available to cure the symptoms -- taking multiple prescription drugs, getting cortisone shots and undergoing acupuncture treatments. Looking back, they dealt with the symptoms, but didn't tackle the problem.
"So I was masking it, trying to hang on at the level of proficiency that I was, and it was a steep slope going downhill," he said. "I'm just so glad now guys can come back from it, because of the expertise of the doctors these days, based on a lot of what Dr. Jobe brought forward, along with Dr. [Robert] Kerlan, who was Dr. Jobe's mentor."
Strom worked for the Dodgers for a number of years and become close to Jobe, but they lost touch the last few years, with Strom holding down several jobs.
Strom was hired by the Astros in the offseason for his second stint as the team's pitching coach.
"When we ran into each other, he remembered me," Strom said. "Most of the time you remember your first love. I think he remembered his first two."
Strom marvels at how the surgery has revolutionized the game and saved so many careers. But he bristles at the idea that replacing an elbow ligament is routine.
"No operation, no surgery is routine," he said. "The success rates have been increasing, and they're able to do more with elbows than they are shoulders, and that's a credit to the continuing experience and expertise of the doctors.
"The thing that bothers me is when parents of people opt for the surgery when it's not needed. Any time you cut on somebody, you can't assume it's going to be any better. The body wasn't made to be cut on."
Even though the surgery paid dividends for John, Strom and countless others, Strom says avoiding elbow surgery should be the main concern. That's why, even today, he tries to consult with experts as much as he can to find ways to prevent injuries.
"We're trying to gather as much information as we can so we can be proactive in pitchers not have this surgery, instead of being reactive," he said.