The book: “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
The author: Jeff Passan
The vital statistics: Harper, 368 pages, $26.99 (To be released April 5)
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com
The pitch: So, without an arm, it’s tough to make any kind of pitch.
But that’s our attempt, without leaving you in stitches.
This seemed to be most appropriate in the lead-off spot for the annual baseball book review parade because of the subject matter, the importance of Sports Illustrated taking an excerpt in its current edition, and most impressively how well researched it is by Passan, an award-winning Yahoo!Sports baseball feature writer and columnist (see one of his recent pieces about the Dodgers-SportsNet LA situation).
The buzz it has already created is warranted.
There are several ways to deliver this material, from all kinds of angles. Fear is usually the most effective in trying to create a call to action to stop teenagers from getting their elbows torn open at an epidemic rate for the pursuit of something that’s hardly guaranteed.
But Passan takes this from all sides, from eye-opening youth league issues to the ever-documented major leagues, from current players going through the process of another elbow surgery and rehab to others (like Sandy Koufax) who didn’t have the option, to someone like Trevor Bauer who seems to know all that’s advanced about arm preservation but still has yet to make an MLB splash.
Best to wait a half hour after eating before getting into the first chapter.
It begins most graphically with a step by step, detail by detail, four-hour surgery involving one-time Dodgers pitcher Todd Coffey, which is enough to make one put the book down and wonder: Why do they even put themselves through this?
Which is why the book continues.
Passan has the passion and duty to drill down on this, interviewing more than 200 people who have opinions about why a pitcher’s arm has become, as the title says, a valuable commodity (in the original title, it was called a “thing” but that was changed). It can endure science, pitch counts, injections, soaking, stretching, repair, re-repair … and just when you believe common sense will take over, there are new ways of preservation and perseverance that humanizes all this appendage.
For added perspective, we can appreciate that Passan took the time to track down people like Paul Pettit, the one-time left-handed phenom out of Narbonne High who was the first $100,000 bonus baby in 1950, pitched in a dozen games for the Pittsburgh Pirates in ’51 and ’53, was done by age 21, tried to come back as an outfielder in the PCL, went on to be an assistant principal at Hawthorne High School and now, at 84, is OK just playing golf with his friends in Los Alamitos.
“Baseball’s ignorance killed his arm,” Passan writes, “and those who did survive engaged in the ultimate victim-blaming.”
Once upon a time, baseball doctors thought that by pulling someone’s teeth, it would fix an arm. Now some refer to Tommy John Surgery as nothing more than having a root canal.
Getting through this book isn’t like pulling teeth. It’s offering something much more to bite into that hasn’t been put together quite like this. Please, don’t just floss over the material.
More to know:
Thanks to Passan to submitting to our Q&A follow up:
Q: The quote from John Smoltz calling it the “most important baseball book in years” must be satisfying. Someone like him would know about arm issues, you clearly point out Smoltz talking about this in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. What other responses to the book so far have caused you to feel it was worth all the time and effort you put into it?
A: Already I’ve received a number of calls from people inside the baseball establishment saying, essentially, “OK, what do we need to do?” And they’re smart people, so I think they know just as well as I do. I just don’t think all of the issues have been distilled into a single story before, and any resonance this book ultimately may have comes from it encapsulating all the issues. It doesn’t have solutions, per se, but it does have suggestions I think could help a lot.
Q: We did a story about three years ago with Dr. James Andrews, about the book he wrote on preventing sports injures based on all the young athletes he saw coming into his office.
Whether or not parents actually found the book and reacted to it, we might not know. You must feel strongly that parents should also read the stories you collected as well and maybe, somehow, the message will sink in somehow? Is that your call to action?
A: Absolutely. I’ve seen the nadir of Tommy John surgery in Daniel Hudson, one of the pitchers I followed for the last four years. And the idea that children are subjected to it because … their coach wanted to win a game? Their parents think he might get a partial scholarship to college? The incentives in youth baseball are entirely misplaced, and while I’d like to believe most of the coaches and parents are conscientious, I’ve seen too many cases and heard countless more of abject irresponsibility. Youth baseball has no place for those who place themselves over the well-being of their children, and I hope this emboldens people to point out wrongs when they see them.
Q: Todd Coffey is a name Dodgers fans might remember — in 2012, he pitched in just 23 games, 19 1/3 innings … then the elbow went, based on a hunch by catcher A.J. Ellis. Coffey hasn’t been back to the big leagues since. Seattle and Atlanta signed and released him since then. You write about his latest try to play in Mexico. You must know him pretty intimately by now, considering how you were there in the operating room with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, watching him dig through Coffey’s leg at one point like MacGyver looking for a tendon that could help repair his elbow during a four-hour surgery. Was that kind of gruesome for you to not just watch but also take copious notes and stay focused?
A: I’ve been reporting for 18 years now, and those were the coolest four hours I’ve ever witnessed. I’m the son of a nurse and married to one, too, so maybe the iron stomach comes naturally. A few years earlier when I visited the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., I watched Dr. Jeff Dugas prep a knee joint from a cadaver for a clinical test by stripping the skin and muscle off the bone. So I’d say after that, I was pretty well inured.
Q: Would someone who saw a surgery like that ever want to go through one – especially when you consider that they are using tendons donated from cadavers? Could that be the ultimate in preventative medicine – like watching those horrible car accident movies during a drivers’ training class?
A: One thing I know about athletes: No matter how awful or off-putting something is, if they think it will heal them or help them improve, they’ll do it. Much as I’d love to see a black-and-white Tommy John Madness film in widescreen, there’s no such thing as scared straight in sports.
Q: The story of Trevor Bauer is another that should resonate with Southern California baseball fans. Hart High. UCLA. No. 3 overall pick. What do you make of his story before and after all he went through and the scientific approaches he has taken?
A: Forget baseball players. He’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. One of the themes in the book is the duality of stubbornness. There is no way Trevor Bauer reaches the major leagues if he doesn’t do everything his way. As much as anyone I’ve seen, he willed himself to become what he is. At the same time, his single-mindedness gets in the way far too often. Because even if he is smarter than the people who are giving him advice — and in almost all cases, he is — their different perspective might help him realize something he wouldn’t have otherwise. If ever he can strike that balance, watch out.
Q: Did you know the whole story about Tommy John really pushing the first Dr. Frank Jobe elbow surgery, rather than Dr. Jobe being the engine in this, before you talked to both of them? You seem to admire the fact they were both in this together knowing it was kind of the blind leading the blind, but why not try it?
A: I marvel at Frank Jobe’s courage. I know there had been facsimiles of the surgery on other parts of the body, but when he cut open Tommy John’s elbow, he was doing something no doctor ever had attempted. It takes some kind of self-assurance to pioneer a procedure. Tommy’s approach was as much about self-preservation as it was innovation. He never set out to have his name intertwined with something so ubiquitous. He just wanted to throw because retirement sounded like a bummer.
Q: So, with your son, do you hope he never tries to be a pitcher?
A: On the contrary. I think if treated correctly, children can pitch safely and effectively and grow into their velocity safely. It’s tougher in Los Angeles, where the weather is perfect and playing ball year-round is almost an expectation, than Kansas City, where we have seasons and more of a natural break for baseball-playing kids. My son is 8, and his first practice for kid-pitch games is this week. He’s excited. But I promise this: No matter how good he is this year, he’s not throwing more than one inning a game. If anything, that’s what I hope parents take from this book. Kids have plenty of time to grow up. Let ’em.