The Hall of Fame ceremonies July 26 in Cooperstown, NY, were about celebrating the careers of John Smoltz and other new inductees. Smoltz, however, took the time in his remarks to include another issue during his time at the podium.
An Atlanta Brave for 20 of his 21 major league seasons, Smoltz chose to look ahead rather than reflect on the past.
“Please take care of those great future arms,” Smoltz said in a message to all who are responsible for protecting young pitchers.
Smoltz is the first pitcher to reach the Hall of Fame after having Tommy John surgery on his pitching arm. He does not want to see a long line of today’s youngsters face such a challenge.
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have surgery at 14 and 15 years old, that you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport, that you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports,” Smoltz said.
Tommy John surgery, named after the first player to successfully undergo the then-experimental procedure, is a reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow. Similar to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction in the knee, Tommy John surgery uses a tendon from another part of the body, or sometimes a cadaver, to replace the UCL.
Smoltz wants to reduce the need for such drastic measures, thus enabling players to continue athletic pursuits.
The Hall of Famer would like to see youngsters throwing more but pitching less, and “playing” more but “competing” less.
In addition to concerns about trying to play the same sport too much with young developing bodies, Smoltz questioned the process of pushing children into more high-level competition at the expense of more enjoyable games, both formal and informal.
Youth baseball has evolved through the years with well-researched pitching limitation rules to try to prevent managers, coaches and players from pushing too hard. As Smoltz points out, the emphasis on being a baseball pitcher “year-round” makes it difficult for those rules to keep up.
“Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses (tell you) that this is the way,” Smoltz said in continuing his message to parents. “We have such great, dynamic arms in our game that it’s a shame that we’re having one- and two- and three-(time) Tommy John recipients.
“So, I want to encourage you to, if nothing else, know that your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside; they don’t have fun; they don’t throw enough.
“But, they’re competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that’s why we’re having these problems.”
Smoltz, who won 213 games and saved 154 during his career, characterized serious elbow injuries and the earlier, increased need for Tommy John surgery among pitchers as an epidemic. It’s one he would like to see people join together to reduce.
“It’s something that is affecting our game,” Smoltz said. “It’s something that I thought would cost me my career, but thanks to Dr. James Andrews and all those before him, performing the surgery with such precision has caused it to be almost a false read, like a Band-Aid you put on your arm.”
Smoltz made it all the way back, but many never do. He hopes not as many have to try.
Reprinted with permission from GameChanger and The Season.