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Beating the Odds

How One Man’s Risk Changed Baseball

Comedian W.C. Fields, while riding in an air balloon, yelled to the ground to ask, “Is this Kansas City, Kansas?”

When told he must be lost, Fields replied, “Kansas City is lost. I am here.”

Not many people go through life with the certainty that Fields did. Fear of the unknown and the fear of failure keep most of us from getting what we want.

Such was not the case 40 years ago, when a baseball player and a surgeon stepped into the unknown. Tommy John, then a 31-year-old pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, underwent an operation by Dr. Frank Jobe, the team’s physician.

“Forty years ago today, two men took a leap of faith,” John wrote on his Facebook page, observing the anniversary of what today is known as Tommy John Surgery.

The operation, in which a healthy tendon is extracted from an arm, a leg, or even a cadaver, is used to replace an arm’s torn ligament. This was risk-taking 101.

John posted: “People ask me all the time, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ No!! Because I had ultimate faith in Dr. Frank Wilson Jobe. We were friends first and Dr./patient second. My words to Dr. Jobe were, ‘If you do your job, I’ll more than do mine!!’”

Today the surgery is routine. In fact, it’s become all too common. The question isn’t whether the operation will work. The question is why so many pitchers need it. That didn’t concern Jobe 40 years ago. He was taking a leap into the unknown, where he put the chance to succeed at one percent.

“He explained some more things that could happen but I was satisfied that I was with the correct surgeon,” John said. “I said to Dr. Jobe, ‘LET’S DO IT!’ Never did either of us think that this surgery would be so epidemic as it is today.”

Yes, it’s an epidemic. Pitchers who have received this surgery include Jose Fernandez, A.J. Burnett, Matt Harvey, John Smoltz, Adam Wainwright, Stephen Strasburg and Brian Wilson.

After one year to recover, John resumed his career. He won more games after the surgery than he did before, leaving him with 288 victories. Many people believe he should be enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. For years I did not think so. Reflecting on his contribution has changed my mind. John’s willingness to take a risk has given hope to hundreds of athletes with damaged arms.

“It seems to be a law of nature,” said naval hero John Paul Jones, “that those who will not risk cannot win.”

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Greatness begins with the way you think, and “Think Better, Win More!: How Sport Psychology Can Make you a Champion” will help.

To improve at anything, check out “The Improvement Factor: How Champions Turn Practice into Success.”

Need some motivation? Open any page of “Thank God You’re Lazy! The Instant Cure for What’s Holding You Back” for a story or a quote to lift your spirits.

Are you a coach? Here’s “Ten Things Great Coaches Know” by Mike Tully and Gary Pritchard.


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