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Dr. Lewis Yocum was baseball's medical superstar

Lewis Yocum, master of the Tommy John surgical procedure, was the Angels' team physician, but he was the surgeon of choice for players throughout baseball.

May 28, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • Longtime Angels physician and nationally renowned orthopedic surgeon Lewis Yocum died Saturday after battling liver cancer. He was 65.
Longtime Angels physician and nationally renowned orthopedic surgeon… (John Cordes / Angels )

We did not get the chance to say farewell, and thank you.

Dr. Lewis Yocum wanted it that way. He lived his last days the way he lived all of them, with the sincere belief that the spotlight should be on the people he treated, not on the doctor who treated them.

The baseball community recoiled in shock on Tuesday, when the Angels announced the passing of one of the giants of sports medicine. He had touched so many, and yet so few even knew he was sick.

And then came the outpouring of love and gratitude, the portrait of a man with exceptional skill, uncommon dignity and a wicked good sense of humor.

"He's irreplaceable," said Rick Smith, the Angels' longtime athletic trainer.

Dr. Frank Jobe invented the career-saving elbow surgery popularly known as the Tommy John procedure. Jobe hired Yocum out of medical school in 1977, and soon afterward Yocum devised a way to simplify and shorten the procedure.

"He could probably do the Tommy John operation better than I could," Jobe said.

Jobe should be in the Hall of Fame, and Yocum too. The passing of Yocum was so significant that agent Scott Boras took to Twitter for the second time in his life: "Dr. Yocum was a caring genius who had a profound impact on the game and its players. His plaque in the Hall awaits."

Yocum might have been the Angels' medical director, but he worked with players, trainers and doctors from every team. Ryan Madson was with the Cincinnati Reds last year when his elbow blew out. He surveyed 10 players, asking whom he should consider as his surgeon.

"Not one person said anybody else," Madson said.

Madson said he was tickled that Yocum remembered him from a previous operation 14 years earlier.

Kevin Jepsen recalled how Yocum put him at ease on the operating table.

"It's either going to be fixed or not when you wake up," Yocum told him. "Nothing you can do about it while you're under."

For all the famous elbows he fixed, Yocum treated generations of ordinary Angelenos. Yocum as your surgeon was like Sandy Koufax as your pitching coach.

"It didn't matter if you were a weekend golfer or a superstar pitcher, Dr. Yocum had the same feeling of compassion for you," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "That's what made him such a special person."

Yocum was 65, and far from retired. The Angels dedicated their athletic training room to him three weeks ago, in a private ceremony, so his family could see all that he had meant to the team to which he had devoted more than half his life.

"That was the least we could do," said Jered Weaver, who personally affixed a commemorative plaque.

And then Yocum, weak as he was, walked around to check up on his players, and their rehabilitations, and their families.

Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals' ace, was one of his final Tommy John patients. I spoke to Yocum last September, days after the Nationals shut down Strasburg, keeping him out of postseason play.

Yocum supported the Nationals' decision but said there were no long-term studies to provide conclusive evidence that Strasburg's long-term health would be best served by shutting him down. The story triggered a few unfortunate volleys about exactly when Yocum had spoken with the Nationals, and Major League Baseball got involved in crafting a statement to calm the waters.

The next time I saw Yocum, I apologized for the unintended tempest. He could have said he was misquoted, or that his words were taken out of context. He did not.

For that, and for so much else, thank you and farewell.

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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