The Trouble with Tommy John (Surgery)
GASTONIA, N.C. - 16-year-old Mitchell Cunningham is a relief pitcher on his varsity team. Four years ago, he suffered a growth plate elbow injury during a game and needed surgery. A two inch screw now stabilizes the joint. He says, "My fast ball did increase in velocity."
That increase in velocity is what's driving some kids to wonder if going under the knife could enhance their pitching career. Fred McMurray, Mitchell's dad, says, "The biggest pressure is on the pitchers."
McMurray says he'd never have let his son have the surgery unless it was necessary. "To sacrifice your body at such an early age to play baseball, it could have some long term effects," says McMurray.
A new study shows kids don't see the danger. The head physician for the New York Yankees recently published a study that shows 50% of high school athletes believe surgery should be performed in absence of an injury to improve performance. They're zeroing in on "Tommy John surgery," named for the former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher.
"Kids are not afraid of having to have an arm surgery as they were several years ago," says Brian Horne. He pitched in the minor league and now coaches high school ball in Gastonia. Many of his athletes play year round. Horne says, "If he's not playing year round, then he feels like everybody else is passing him up."
Surgeon James Romanowski of the Gill Orthopaedic Clinic in Charlotte (www.charlotteshoulder.com) sees that lack of patience play out in his exam rooms, too. "They come in and they've had a week of pain and they say, 'I've seen a pro athlete have the surgery, do you think that's an option for me now?'"
Instead, Dr. Romanowski often prescribes time off: at least two or three months a year. He says, "Pitching every day won't make you a better pitcher. Being wise about when you pitch, how you pitch and conditioning your body both before and after season will go much further than Tommy John surgery."
Cunningham, who takes about three months off a year, had to rehab his injured elbow for about seven months. Even though he now throws faster, he only recommends orthopaedic surgery to his fellow student athletes if it's medically necessary.