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Stephen Strasburg, Meet Tommy John

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Stephen Strasburg has to have Tommy John surgery.

That's a sentence that, like a Yiddish or Spanish punch line, may need to be explained a bit.

Mr. Strasburg, who is 22 and pitches for the Washington Nationals, is the biggest young star in baseball. He can throw a ball so fast it seems to roar.

He started his first major league game on June 10 and struck out 14 batters. Nats management said they knew they had a golden arm on their roster, and all but wrapped Stephen Strasburg in cotton gauze, limiting the number of pitches they let him throw in a game as if the balls were boulders.

But Stephen Strasburg had a few ordinary games and was placed on the disabled list in July. On Friday, the Nationals announced that he has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching arm, will undergo surgery and can't play for the next year or two.

Tommy John surgery is named for the man who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and thought his career was over at the age of 33 when he damaged his collateral ligament. Dr. Frank Jobe took a ligament from Mr. John's other arm and hooked it up in his pitching arm.

Tommy John returned to baseball two years later — stronger than ever. He won 288 games and didn't retire until he was 46, and only when Mark McGwire, whose father was his dentist, got two hits off of him.

"When your dentist's kid starts hitting you," Mr. John told reporters, "it's time to retire!"

Dr. Jobe's ULC surgery has been refined in recent years. Some of the best pitchers in baseball have had the operation, including nine who were selected for this year's All-Star Game. Dr. Frank Jobe may get into the Hall of Fame before Mark McGwire does.

Slender elbow ligaments can now be replaced with tendons from the stronger knee or hamstring. It amounts to legal, surgical joint enhancement, and fathers sometimes beg doctors to perform it on their sons playing Little League.

The odds are good that Stephen Strasburg will recover and return to form. But I'll bet that a bright young star like Mr. Strasburg knows the names of a few other phenomenal young pitchers who suffered early injuries. Mark Fidrych of the Tigers tore his rotator cuff. Herb Score of the Indians was hit in the eye by a line drive. Kerry Wood of the Cubs strained his ligaments. They had operations, worked hard, came back and won a lot of respect — but never quite blazed as bright.

Stephen Strasburg's surgery reminds us this week that what seem like superpowers are always only fleeting, fragile, and human.



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Simon Says

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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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