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The Comeback That Started It All
2003-04-04 09:35
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

Tonight, as Darren Dreifort attempts to become the first major league pitcher to successfully come back from two elbow reconstructions, why donÕt we take a look at how the pioneer of reconstruction recovery, Tommy John, did in his return.

First, a little background. You might know intuitively that John brought much better credentials to the operating table than Dreifort, but you might not know how much better. Some people only remember the post-surgery Tommy John, but he was quite a pitcher beforehand.

When JohnÕs elbow gave out on him in July 1974 (shortly before his 31st birthday), John was 13-3 with a 2.59 ERA in a league where the average ERA was 3.41. Despite going 2-11 in his first two seasons, John had a career record of 124-106.

Dreifort, as we all know, has won just a smattering of games in his career, going 43-52 with a 4.38 ERA that is worse than the 4.14 league average in that time. Dreifort was 27 when the injury occurred Š he turns 29 on Monday.

Anyway, John and Dreifort had this in common: They each missed the remainder of the season in which they were hurt, plus all the following season.

Also, Dreifort will take the mound today against a San Diego Padres team that went 66-96 in 2002 and figures to be about as bad this year. On April 16, 1976, John faced an Atlanta Braves team that went 67-94 in 1975 and would only improve by 2 Z games in 1976, to 70-92.

Atlanta was the home team. In the bottom of the first, John was almost too wobbly or too careful. He got two groundouts, then walked Darrell Evans and ex-Dodger teammate Jimmy Wynn before Ken Henderson made the third out on a tapper to Steve Yeager.

In the second inning, John induced two more groundouts, allowed a single to Darrel Chaney, and then got his sixth groundout out of six outs.

The third inning brought JohnÕs second jam. John delivered his first strikeout (Rowland Office Š always liked that name), but then walked another ex-Dodger, Jerry Royster, gave up a single to Evans and walked Wynn for the second time. Henderson was the escape route again, grounding into a double play.

By the way, the Dodgers hadnÕt gotten any hits off Braves starter Dick Ruthven to this point. They did get a Ted Sizemore walk and Steve Garvey single in the top of the fourth, but Ron Cey hit into a force play to end the inning.

John sailed through the bottom of the fourth, drawing two more groundouts before the first Braves flyout of the game, by Chaney to Dusty Baker.

The score was still 0-0 with one out in the bottom of the fifth, when Office and Royster singled. Evans came up É and hit a three-run home run. John got through the rest of the inning, but came out of the game after that.

His totals: 5 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 1 K. Twelve of his 15 outs came on the ground.

That was it for the Braves. The Dodgers remained shut out until the ninth, when they scored one run and put the tying runs on second and third with one out. However, Bill Buckner struck out, and Ted Sizemore flied out to end the game.

On the bright side, the home run by Evans was one of only seven homers John would allow in 1976, a season in which he would make 31 starts, throw 207 innings (6 2/3 innings per start), and finish 10-10 despite a nice 3.09 ERA. The following year, at age 34, John would go 20-7 with a 2.78 ERA, the first of three 20-plus win seasons he would deliver following the surgery that established his place in history.

Dreifort is likely to get more strikeouts tonight then John did in that game 27 years ago, but if he can match anything else that John did that day or for the remaining 14! years of JohnÕs career (he pitched until he was 46 years old, remember), that will really be something.

I donÕt know if Tommy John was a better pitcher than he was a story, but he was excellent in both respects.

Thanks to Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com.

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