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'Tommy John' surgery can extend careers of pitchers

Tommy John #25 of the New York Yankees pitches during a 1989 season game.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: In the sports pages today, we saw a modern story of risk and return. Stephen Strasberg is one of the best -- and best paid -- rookie pitchers in baseball history. He has thrown some amazing games. But the Washington Nationals ace has torn his elbow ligament, and he's probably gonna have a procedure known as "Tommy John surgery." Now what it means is, Strasberg will recuperate for a year and a half or so. But when he comes back, he'll likely be as strong as ever -- maybe stronger.

Marketplace's Gregory Warner reports, Tommy John surgery is changing the business of baseball.


Gregory Warner: The procedure's nickname comes from the first player to have it done. Tommy John had pitched 14 seasons of pro ball when he had what everyone thought was a career-ending tear to his elbow ligament. Then in 1974, a surgeon replaced that ligament with a tendon taken from Tommy's forearm. Less than two years later...

Russell Huffman: Tommy John went on to have a very successful career as a pitcher.

Russell Huffman is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania. He says with a 90 percent rate of success, Tommy John surgery has given thousands of athletes a second chance at play.

Huffman: And some will say you know my elbow feels stronger than it has in years, and that may drive players to say it's not a bad thing; it could be a good thing to undergo this surgery.

High school players, even Little Leaguers, are increasingly going under the knife. Dr. Paul Marchetto operates on young athletes at the Rothman Institute at Jefferson. He says sometimes its a scholarship on the line.

Paul Marchetto: Some do feel "Well, this is my ticket. I want to go to college with my baseball, and I really want to go through it."

For baseball team owners, Tommy John surgery has become a kind of insurance. The National's gave Stephen Strasberg a record $15 million contract. John Vrooman is a sports economist at Vanderbilt University.

John Vrooman: Well, if he has a career-ending injury, then that cash flow goes away, and I think what Tommy John does is it just kind of cuts off this risk.

And makes teams more willing to throw big money at an arm that hasn't been tested in the major league. And since studies show that the hardest throwing pitchers are most likely to need a Tommy John, it could make everybody play a little closer to the edge.

I'm Gregory Warner for Marketplace.

About the author

Gregory Warner is a senior reporter covering the economics and business of healthcare for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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