Tommy John won 288 games in the majors, but, of course, he remains far better known for the operation that now bears his name: Tommy John Surgery. In 1974, a tendon was replaced in his damaged left arm and, miraculously, he returned to pitch for another 13 years. So no one, perhaps, knows the capriciousness of athletic health better than he.
Today, John is still in baseball, the manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish, who play in the Atlantic League, one of those independent circuits that are pretty much stocked by forgotten older players who've been passed over by major-league organizations but still play for peanuts because they don't know what else to do and/or they let themselves still dream that they'll catch lightning in a bottle.
And, by God, it can happen. A 32-year-old has-been named Brandon Knight was in the Atlantic League last season. Saturday night, he started a game for the New York Mets.
Four nights before that, in York, Pa., John went out to the mound to remove a Bluefish pitcher who had just given up nine runs in barely more than three innings. But this time, when John took the ball from the pitcher, he also paused and embraced him.
The pitcher was Tim Drew. Who remembers now that, 11 years ago, Drew was a glamorous first-round choice in baseball's draft? I only know because of a wonderfully touching story written by Rich Elliott in The Connecticut Post. But, oh, what was written about Drew back then. Not only could the kid throw a baseball 94 miles per hour, but his older brother, J.D., was also selected in the first round. And not only that: Seven years later, yet a third Drew brother, Steve, was drafted in the first round.
Well, two outta three ain't bad. J.D., of the Red Sox, was the most valuable player in the All-Star Game a couple weeks ago. Steve is shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks. They made it big.
Tim did get to the majors. He pitched in all of 35 games. Mostly, though, he caromed around the minors until he ended up, 29 years old, pitching in Bridgeport, Conn.
The human arm really is not built to throw a baseball. Like John, like a lot of pitchers, Tim Drew's arm busted. He had an operation: Three tacks were inserted in his shoulder. He came back this year, but it didn't take him long to realize that whatever he had wasn't there anymore.
After the game in York, he only asked John for one more favor: Sunday, back in Bridgeport, to start the game against Camden, he put Eric DuBose, his best friend on the team, behind the plate, and Drew threw one more pitch.
Then Drew walked off the mound forever. He's going to go to community college. We hear about J.D. and Steve Drew. But most ballplayers are the brother in-between. They're Tim Drew, and they hate to leave the game, but one day they realize they must.
Just give me one last pitch and I'll be gone.
It was a strike, right on the corner.