Is surgery changing baseball?

Baseball Surgery Concerns

Tommy John pitches during a 1986 game at Yankee Stadium, more than a decade after his career-saving surgery.
Tommy John pitches during a 1986 game at Yankee Stadium, more than a decade after his career-saving surgery.
AP Photo/Ron Frehm

Tommy John surgery currently runs between $10,000 and $20,000, though this is nothing compared to the salary-earning years it can add to a major league pitcher's career [source: Fraser]. Yet some Tommy John recipients returned from rehab with claims that made the procedure seem an even greater bargain: They said the surgery made them pitch better than they were before.

As soon as these tales of better-pitching-through-science began to circulate, critics forecast a troubling future -- a day when healthy athletes went under the knife in an attempt to improve their game. After all, what price wouldn't be worth paying to ascend into the esteemed world of baseball superstardom? Over the years, sports medicine doctors have indeed reported inquires from young, uninjured baseball players regarding purely elective Tommy John surgery [source: Fraser]. Fortunately, many doctors are too professional to perform unnecessary surgery on uninformed patients.


If back-alley Tommy John surgeries really could supercharge the average Joe's throwing arm, the situation might be different. As it stands, however, there's little or no truth to the myth. The surgery merely allows a pitcher to return to form following an injury. Recipients of the procedure sometimes forget that their UCL probably didn't just snap. Instead, the ligament tends to weaken gradually over a period of years. It's like when you fill up an empty gas tank: You're filling it up with more gas than it had before pulling up to the pump, but you won't be able to fill it up any more than its maximum capacity.

While the Tommy John procedure hasn't created teams of stitch-skinned monster men, it's one of many medical techniques that have helped to change baseball. New takes on the surgery, such as the docking procedure, have refined the method, employing less intrusive surgical techniques -- such as working around muscles instead of removing them.

Other surgical techniques also have helped to streamline injury treatment and recovery. Doctors are better able to treat knee, spine and shoulder injuries, and sports medicine has grown into a thriving industry. After all, an estimated 80,000 ACL tears occur each year, making the knee injury one of the most feared among athletes [source: Altman]. Lasik eye surgery also helps out, giving players sharper vision on the field without the aid of contacts or glasses.

But not all the trends in sports medicine are that encouraging.