Like any human endeavor, sports evolve over time. Science and technology fuel these changes, improving athletic equipment design, training, and the value of information gleaned from player statistics. From everyday recreational activities to the highest levels of competitive play, these innovations were real game-changers for sports. These breakthroughs, in my eyes, have had the biggest impact.
Baseball – Tommy John Surgery (1974)
Dr. Frank Jobe and Tommy John in trainer’s room at Dodger Stadium. [Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Dodgers]
Thousands of pitchers who play Major League Baseball have undergone the same elbow reconstruction surgery. First performed in 1974 by the orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe, the surgery was only an experiment when Dr. Jobe first tried it on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John. Today, the surgery is routine. Although arthroscopy has revolutionized the way surgeons approach orthopedics, Tommy John surgery hasn’t changed much (probably because Jobe designed the operation to be minimally invasive). Who knows? Pitchers such as Mariano Rivera, John Smoltz, and many others might have faded into oblivion, were it not for Dr. Jobe.
Football – Helmet Audio (1994)
Original patent drawing for HELMET RADIOS INCLUDING A TRANSISTOR AMPLIFIER (US 2904645-A)
Though the Cleveland Browns experimented with the idea of placing homemade radio receivers inside the helmet of quarterback George Ratterman in 1956, it wasn’t until 1994 that the NFL first allowed quarterbacks to use built-in radios inside their helmets to communicate with football coaches on the sidelines.
Tennis – Composite Tennis Rackets (1968)
1970s ad for Wilson’s T2000 tennis racket
Until the 1970s, tennis rackets were only fashioned out of wood. Although the functionality of wooden rackets improved with advancements in laminating technology (using thin layers of wood glued together) and in stringing methods, the rackets were still relatively heavy and the surface area of racket heads remained small. Compared to modern rackets used today, even the best-made wood rackets were unwieldy and lacking in power. Then, in 1968, Wilson introduced its T2000, the first steel racket on the market. The popularity of the T2000 racket skyrocketed after Jimmy Connors adopted it as his own.
Basketball – Breakaway Rims (1976)
That the NBA needed a new kind of basketball hoop became more and more obvious as slam-dunking became increasingly popular during the 1970s. If dunks didn’t damage the hoop completely, they shattered the backboard, putting the safety of players and spectators at risk. Not to mention that NBA games were often delayed for hours while the equipment was replaced. With a hunch that technology to build a better hoop must exist, Randy Albrecht, an assistant college basketball coach, approached his uncle Arthur Ehrat, a grain elevator worker, to explore the idea. Ehrat added a hinge and a spring from a John Deere cultivator to a basketball hoop rim. With the new setup, the iron basketball rim could bend–and immediately snap back into place–under pressure.
When a pitcher makes their usual throwing motion, it puts valgus stress on the arm–meaning their elbow bends in a direction the body isn’t intended to go. With the velocity and force that a major league pitcher has behind each of their pitches, that stress on the body rises to levels where the forearm wants to detach from the body. The reason it doesn’t is because of a small connection of ligaments. Once those ligaments snap after years of stress, they require reconstructive surgery that entails a lengthy rehabilitation stint.
In short, that is Tommy John surgery, the growing surgery of choice in Major League Baseball since the 1970s.
That is just one interesting fact into Tommy John surgery conducted by ESPN for its extensive May report. Another stunning fact is the amount of literal pressure a pitcher has on them with each pitch. If someone faced that pressure for a full minute, they would likely die.
But what might be most surprising is that the ulnar collateral ligament damage that necessitates Tommy John surgery occurs most during ages 6 to 17. As the sport has grown over the years, athletes were handed increased schedules that now often include multiple leagues that run across most of the year, summer camps and showcases. In short, it’s an issue of overuse at increasingly early ages. Famed physicians Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig are just two of several leading authorities in the field to advocate for revised pitching calendars for youth athletes. In recent years, reports of teenagers as young as 14 undergoing the reconstructive surgery have surfaced at an alarming rate.
No longer is the issue just about holding off teaching a child to throw a curveball–a rule often tossed aside by coaches and parents. Now, physicians urge for “6 months on, 6 months off” types of strategies that ensure ample rest for the athlete during the offseason. This may prevent the prospect from attending every summer camp and tryout, but it is highly likely that this will preserve their arm for the long haul. It is a risk that the player and their family must decide. When a potentially lucrative contract could be in grasp, how do you turn that down? How can you tell a budding prospect to tone down the force behind their pitches? That’s why some are willing to overuse their arm, or force the issue early and get Tommy John at a younger age.
Yankee pitcher Ivan Nova also had Tommy John surgery in 2014.
On the Major League level, the trend is rising as well. The Hardball Times writer Jon Roegele tracked the trend over the years and noted that 31 major leaguers accounted for the 101 professionals in the sport to undergo the surgery last year. Surprisingly, that is 50 percent more than 2013’s totals. This season alone has seen pitchers Yu Darvish, Zach Wheeler and Dodgers first round pick Walker Buehler go under the knife. With a few months left in the season, more could be added to list.
While the ESPN article pondered if we have just gotten better at diagnosing the issue, MLB is taking proactive steps to minimize the injury on all levels. As sports become increasingly modernized with technology, we are able to get better insight into what might cause this trend. The Tampa Bay Rays gained some attention when they announced plans to implement Kinatrax motion capture system to gauge a player’s biometrics–potentially identifying the exact movements to avoid causing crucial injuries. This is just another step for an organization that prides itself on cutting edge player health measures.
But MLB isn’t only focusing on the current stars of the game. They are focusing on the future. In a partnership with USA Baseball, the Pitch Smart campaign launched to educate adults on the age appropriate steps their athletes should be taking. One leading participant is Dr. Fleisig. The hope is that this helps form proper mechanics and habits that not only boosts health, but also proficiency on the mound.
While the issue has a ways to go, these steps should prove fruitful in the coming years if surgery rates decline.