As American Sports Skew More Armcentric, Throwing Injuries Rise Baseball players' arms are becoming more like football players' heads — subject to frequent injury and in need of immobilizing surgery.
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As American Sports Skew More Armcentric, Throwing Injuries Rise

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As American Sports Skew More Armcentric, Throwing Injuries Rise

As American Sports Skew More Armcentric, Throwing Injuries Rise

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now that Major League Baseball pitchers are well into a new season, commentator Frank Deford is wondering about their injuries.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: A question - what ever happened to rotator cuffs? It seems like just yesterday that every pitcher who was injured had a problem with his rotator cuff. But injury now - it invariably requires what is called Tommy John surgery. And that has become epidemic. The difference is simple. The rotator cuff involves the shoulder. Tommy John relates to the elbow or, more precisely, the ulnar collateral ligament. The corrective surgery by Dr. Frank Jobe was first performed 41 years ago on, of course, Tommy John, a fine pitcher on the Dodgers. And for years, it remained fairly uncommon. Now it's downright commonplace.

It's also indisputable that as more pitchers throw faster - the mid-90 mph is becoming routine - the more Tommy John surgeries we encounter. It doesn't require a crack detective to solve the case. The more pitchers throwing with all their might for just a few pitches, the more ulnar collateral ligaments that are failing. Pitchers' arms are becoming like football players' heads - the happy difference being that you don't require a good arm to keep on living a long, normal life the way you do need an undamaged brain.

But let's face it. American athletics are arms-centric. Not just the pitcher - everybody on a baseball team has to throw the ball. Football depends more and more on passing. What's his arm strength, the scouts first ask of quarterbacks. Basketball shots are propelled by strong arms, especially now with the long 3-point basket en vogue. Throwing is certainly not unnatural. It's just that pitching a baseball overhanded is. Throwing a softball underhanded is a pretty smooth motion. A cricket bowler delivers the ball to the batsman in something of a high loop, without being allowed to break the elbow.

So sore arms have always been endemic to baseball pitchers because it's obvious that pitching a baseball is too abnormal an action for the human body. It would seem that pitchers have survived, barely, these past 150 years or so. But now the added stress, especially for pitchers who started throwing too hard, too young, is just enough to break down too many arms.

Rob Manfred is officially only commissioner of professional baseball. But like the bumbling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Manfred is really the steward of his whole game. Manfred should convene some sort of all-baseball conference to examine this serious issue. Until then, it appears that baseball simply feels that pitchers are fungible, that there's always another kid with another temporarily live arm who can fire it by the hitters. Really, we've got to do better by our best arms.

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford throws a fastball each Wednesday on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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