Tuesday, April 8, 2014

"Did Pitchers Used To be Tougher?" by Dad

     The notion that today’s pitchers are coddled is a pet subject of sports talk radio.  Callers point to the seeming epidemic of Tommy John surgeries, and blame pitch counts, inning restrictions, 5-man rotations, and a general lack of toughness. Not like the old days, they say, when men were men and pitchers went 200 innings a year for 20 years, rubbing dirt on sore arms and soldiering on.
     And there does seem to be a sudden rise this spring in Tommy John surgeries, being performed on the really promising young arms of pitchers like Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy of the Braves, Jarrod Parker of the As, Patrick Corbin on the Diamondbacks and, most recently, Bobby Parnell joining Matt Harvey on the Mets’ pitching casualties list.
     But were the good old days really so good? Did a tougher breed of man stride the mound back in the day, as the callers all like to say?
     I say no. I maintain that pitchers are having this surgery because now they can, and that pitchers are generally having longer, more productive careers than was the norm before the revolution in sports medicine.
     And how revolutionary have the advances in sports medicine been?
     Well, we all can cite chapter and verse about Tommy John surgery, especially having sadly read the recent obituary of Frank Jobe, the father of the procedure. But have we forgotten that simply being able to see torn ligaments and other soft tissue injuries without surgery, via CT scans and MRIs, dates back only to the 1980s?
     I think it true that a lot of pitchers over the years simply left baseball young because of the commonly called “sore arm,” mysterious, undiagnosable and untreatable, never to be heard from again.  And we’ve forgotten about them.  We remember just the durable stars and tell ourselves that their few careers were the norm.
     Just to check myself, I went back to my two favorite teams growing up – the 1962 Yankees and the 1969 Mets.  These are good test cases because, beyond being World Series winners, they were anchored by the kind of durable stars we look back on as the rocks that tower over today’s pitchers. Whitey Ford anchored the ’62 Yankees, and Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman the ’69 Mets, and yes, they had long, durable, impressive careers.  But what about the other pitchers on those starting rotations?
     First, the ’62 Yankees. Their number two pitcher was Ralph Terry, the Bulldog. And yes, he was a tough guy, and had the second longest career after Ford. And how long was it? 12 years, with just three years of 200 or more innings.
    The number three starter that year was a young guy named Bill Stafford, who had two good years – 1961 and 1962 – and who was out of baseball in 1967. 
     The fourth starter? The rookie Jim Bouton, and we know all about him, thanks to his amazing book, Ball Four.  He went on to have two great years in 1963 and 1964, blew his arm out (maybe a candidate for Tommy John, had it existed then?), taught himself a knuckleball and hung on to his career, just barely, until the 60s ended.
     And now the 1969 Mets.  Seaver and Koosman and…
     Well, there was the older veteran Don Cardwell, who did in fact have the kind of long career we imagine everyone did back then.
     But the true number three starter that year was rookie Gary Gentry, about whom Orioles manager Earl Weaver said after his team lost the Series in five games, “We knew about Seaver and Koosman, but we didn’t know the third guy was that good.”  Gentry was good through 1972, then was out of baseball in 1975, at the age of 28.
     The fifth starter that year was a promising young pitcher named Jim McAndrew. He lasted 7 years in the majors, never pitching 200 innings in a season, and clearing 100 innings just three times.
     A funny thing, memory. But the facts seem to state that the golden age of pitching may be… right now.