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The Patients of Jobe

Surgeon's Revolutionary Operations Saved Pitching Careers of Tommy John, Orel Hershiser

August 24, 1998|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"My first pitch to Breeden was. . . .strange. As I came forward and released the ball, I felt a kind of nothingness, as if my arm weren't there, then I heard a 'pop' from inside my arm, and the ball just blooped up to the plate." --From Tommy John's autobiography, "My Twenty-six Years in Baseball." In his 40-year run at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, Frank Jobe has mended the famous and anonymous without distinction, his elegant hand strokes in the operating room compared to those of a symphony conductor.

"Probably the most gifted natural surgeon I've ever seen," son Christopher, also a surgeon, says.

Combining his skills with a love of sports, particularly baseball, Jobe has probably done more to fatten major league player wallets than anyone since union chief Marvin Miller.

Jobe's revolutionary tendon transplant operation on Dodger pitcher Tommy John in 1974 remains the Mona Lisa of sports surgeries. Jobe added another brilliant brush stroke in 1989 with his landmark shoulder procedure on then-Dodger Orel Hershiser.

Hershiser, now a San Francisco Giant, returned to Los Angeles this summer to defeat his former team.

"I think what Dr. Jobe not only has done for me, but all of baseball--and baseball fans--is that he's kept talent on the field, or put talent back on the field," Hershiser says.

Although employed by the Dodgers, Jobe roots for rotator cuffs as much as does for the home team.

Nothing thrilled Jobe more than a July 20 pitching matchup at Dodger Stadium between Darren Dreifort and Cincinnati's Steve Parris.

"I operated on both of them," Jobe says. "That's more important than who wins or loses to me."

Jobe long ago stipulated he would never turn away anyone who needed his help, even if it meant costing the Dodgers the pennant.

"Just like in war," Jobe says. "you take care of enemy soldiers that are hurt."

Baseball's infantry have been lining up at Jobe's M*A*S*H tent for years. Robert Kerlan, Jobe's longtime mentor and partner, died in 1996, but Jobe still stitches away steadily at age 73. He has reduced his work load of late, yet still operates three days a week.

He recently put Dodger pitcher Ramon Martinez' shoulder back together. Jobe doesn't get as nervous as he once did, waking in the pre-dawn hours before big operations, but the stakes are higher now than ever.

"If it's successful," Jobe says of Martinez' surgery, "he's probably going to make $5 million next year. If it's not, he's going to get bought out for $600,000. I try to put that out of my mind, of course."

Jobe only beams when reviewing the chart of his life: His 39-year marriage to Beverly, the couple's four successful sons, Frank's fortunate making of Kerlan's acquaintance.

Then there is Jobe's Biomechanical Laboratory, his pride and joy, which he is presently trying to save from accountants' scalpels.

Yet Jobe is perhaps most proud to have loyally carried the torch handed down from Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician regarded as the father of medicine.

Hippocrates wasn't just a doctor, Jobe says, but the first noted arm surgeon.

As Jobe hovered over Hershiser's shoulder in surgery, he says he considered the lineage to Hippocrates, who thought highly of the shoulder's importance.

"In war, a person who dislocates his shoulder is in serious trouble," Jobe says. "If you're fighting with a sword and the shoulder comes out of its socket, you're dead."

Luckily for Hershiser, Jobe opted for a procedure slightly more sophisticated than the one Hippocrates favored.

"He'd take the skin, pull it up and take a hot poker and put in the armpit and bind down the arm until it scarred and healed," Jobe says of the Hippocrates' technique. "The idea in those days was to keep the arm from coming out, they didn't care about the range of motion."

Hershiser, thank you, cared greatly about range of motion, so Jobe used a technique never before used on a pitcher. Instead of detaching the muscle in Hershiser's shoulder to repair the joint, which would have jeopardized his flexibility, Jobe split the muscle and made the repair.

Not bad, eh Hippocrates?

Evolution of Surgery

"I lost complete use of my arm almost up to the elbow, leaving me with what they call a simian monkey hand. Monkeys don't have an ulnar nerve and that's why their hands and fingers curl. My hand looked like an ugly claw."

--Tommy John

Long before Jobe stood over John in the operating room on Sept. 25, 1974, there would be career decisions.

Jobe grew up in North Carolina--the son of a farmer and postman--disinterested in medicine until enlisting with the Army's 101st Airborne Division in 1943, where the 19-year-old became a medical supply sergeant.

He escaped World War II unscathed, notwithstanding a harrowing escape after Germans briefly captured him in Bastogne, Belgium. Jobe and a buddy hurled themselves down an embankment and eventually hitched a ride out of danger.

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