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Dr. Frank Jobe, a man for all time

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
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Tommy John, left, and Dr. Frank Jobe at the Hall of Fame in July. (AP Photo)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Dr. Frank Jobe labored over the machinery of the human arm, the tendons and ligaments and muscles that make it go. He was innovative and courageous, and so pioneered a practice that put players on the field and kept them there.

But what he traded in was time. Time brought opportunity. Opportunity meant a man was free to make of himself what he could, the limits being the usual maladies of talent and intelligence and effort.

Frank Jobe would fix them up and grant them their primes. Or, re-grant them their primes, those years threatened by small, sinewy and exceptionally problematic bands of tissue that wanted no part of a slider.

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In time, a ballplayer could be a ballplayer again. In time, he would throw just as hard, maybe harder. In time, careers were built and rebuilt, and lives were altered, and maybe it's just baseball but it was what they had. Sometimes it was all they had.

When, through Jobe's imagination and steady hand, the ballplayer was whole again, he would fail because he wasn't good enough. Or he would thrive because that's who he was. To discover which, the ballplayer would require time, and that's what Frank Jobe delivered. The body is fragile. The game is rigorous. More often than not, Frank Jobe made it work.

Jobe passed away Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 88. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom Jobe worked 50 years, on Friday remembered him with a moment of silence before their exhibition game at Camelback Ranch. He was their doctor, sure. He was their friend. Near the end, he'd arrive at Dodger Stadium hunched slightly at the waist, steadied by a cane. He would greet them with a smile and a nod, visit with them in the executive dining room, his gravelly voice carrying barely beyond the table. He'd watch some of the game he loved and, often, leave before the end.

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Dr. Frank Jobe in 1990. (Getty Images)

He was the one who'd decided a ruptured elbow ligament must not lead necessarily to a career pumping gas, and the one who'd formulated the plan and then drilled the holes and weaved the tendon and sewed it all up and hoped. It began, of course, with Tommy John 40 years ago. And not two months ago, Jobe was in Palm Springs for a PGA event, and so was John, and they sat together for 90 minutes, just catching up.

Thousands upon thousands of arms have been made right, if not by Jobe, then by a hand guided by Jobe. It began with him, and the residue is found on every big-league roster, in record books, and in the lives better spent with the telltale crescent-shaped scars.

"He's touched more wins, more saves, more at-bats than anybody in history," said Orel Hershiser.

Jobe delivered to Hershiser, by Hershiser's estimate, 105 wins and some 1,700 innings, all after Jobe put Hershiser's shoulder back together in 1990.

Hershiser described Jobe as humble, with a sneaky sense of humor.

"You're talking about a guy who was brilliant but never acted like the smartest guy in the room," he said. "He would never take the head chair at the table even though he deserved it."

Late last fall, Jobe's longtime friend and fellow surgeon, Lewis Yocum, died at 65. Jobe spoke of Yocum as a brother, and credited Yocum with a "slick" innovation in the Tommy John procedure, which otherwise hadn't significantly changed. Jobe had gotten it right the first time, and every time since, starting with John, who won 164 games post-surgery.

He spoke of Yocum wistfully, of the times they had, the people they met, and their mutual admiration for the game and the men who play it. He may as well have been describing himself. The kindness. The generosity. The sympathy that somehow rubbed up against empathy. The deep devotion he generated from the army of ballplayers who wear his signature on the inside of their dominant elbows.

"In baseball," said Stan Conte, the Dodgers' vice president of medical services, "he is the godfather of sports medicine, for sure."

Asked what Jobe might have been most proud of, Conte crinkled his eyebrows and thought it over.

"I think the satisfaction that people remembered him, even though other doctors were doing the surgery," he said. "He loved the guys. And they thanked him for the surgery, even though he didn't do their surgery."

Brian Wilson endured two Tommy John procedures, the first as a college pitcher in 2003, the second nearly a decade later. Dr. James Andrews performed both. Wilson bears one scar, and now, at 31, a third chance at the game.

"Well," he said, "it's kept me alive. It's given me a purpose, something to strive for. You put all your thoughts toward something positive, all the things in your life brighten. Otherwise, you're like the walking dead. And I didn't want to screw it up."

Indirectly, Jobe gave him the elbow, twice. Like the others, Wilson was left to play the game. He was allowed to find out if he was good enough. He was given the time. And that, as much as anything else, is what Jobe left behind.

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