Famed sports surgeon Lewis Yocum remembered for his compassion as much as his innovation

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – Three weeks ago, Dr. Lewis Yocum, dying from cancer, made his final visit to Angel Stadium. The Angels were dedicating their athletic training room in his name. Jered Weaver hoisted the sign.

Yocum was too weak to say much, but smiled a lot. His son, Donald, helped him from place to place. When the ceremony was over, Yocum eased into his seat in a suite behind home plate.

From that approximate spot, for some 35 years, he'd watched the Angels. He'd seen them win and lose. More, he'd seen countless ballplayers walk off the field holding an elbow, a knee, a shoulder. He'd seen them return, healed. He'd fixed them up, sent them back out to their games, to their careers, to their lives.

The Angels played the Baltimore Orioles that day. As the innings wore on, Mike Port, the former team executive, mentioned to a clearly taxed Yocum that people would understand if he went home to rest.

Yocum shook his head.

"I'm staying until the end of the game," Port recalled Yocum saying. "One of the Orioles has some inflammation they want to have checked."

After the final out, Yocum rose. With Donald's assistance he made his way to the Orioles' clubhouse to examine another ballplayer. Two days later, according to reports, Yocum met with Roy Halladay regarding the veteran right-hander's ailing shoulder.

Dr. Lewis Yocum, 65, died this weekend of liver cancer. He is survived by his wife, two children and a grandchild. He is also survived by all those men broken by the game, and by the men and women and boys and girls who knew nothing of the game, ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, or Tommy John.

"His fame was through the athletes," said Angels vice president Tim Mead. "The service was for everyone. It didn't matter who you were."

Yocum graduated from University of Illinois medical school in 1973. Four years later – three years after Dr. Frank Jobe reconstructed the first elbow, Tommy John's – Yocum began his Fellowship at the renowned Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic. As the years passed, Jobe said Tuesday night, "He could probably do the Tommy John operation better than I could." In 1978, Yocum became the Angels' team doctor.

His name – like Jobe's – became synonymous with the surgery that saved the careers of thousands of ballplayers, most of them pitchers, some of them more than once.

"We didn't do many early on," Jobe said with a subtle grin. "I wasn't 100 percent sure it was going to work. We didn't want to have a bunch of them out there not working."

It did work, of course. And as the ligament replacement procedure and the rehabilitation from it became more refined, Jobe found he still was toiling over methods to drill the necessary holes and loop sutures through them.

"He found a way of doing that real slick," Jobe said. "It took 15 minutes off the procedure."

In that, pitchers kept pitching, and players kept playing.

"He was a wonderful guy," said agent Scott Boras, who, by his estimate, sent hundreds of players to Yocum. "Baseball and its players were all benefactors of the kind and caring genius he possessed."

In the moments after the Angels announced Yocum's passing, agent Joel Wolfe received text messages from clients Randy Wolf, Giancarlo Stanton and Brandon Morrow, all saddened by the news, and not just because he repaired them. Yocum talked to them plainly and with uncommon compassion.

He'd tell them what it was, tell them how he'd fix it, and tell them what it would be like afterward. Sometimes the prognosis wasn't good, and he'd tell them that, too. Countless times, Angels trainer Rick Smith said, he'd overhear Yocum telling a player he could make him well enough to play catch with his son or daughter, and that that was going to have to do.

"They knew that he cared," Wolfe said. "He was the guy you could bring a player in, no matter who that player was – a 16-year-old high school pitcher or Mike Mussina, a 38-year-old veteran who'd seen it all – and it didn't matter to Lew Yocum. He treated them all the same."

Jobe, now 87, sat Tuesday night in the executive dining room at Dodger Stadium. More than three decades before he'd hired the young Yocum, watched him become a leader in the field, and do it with grace and dignity. He'd had lunch with his friend only a few weeks ago. They didn't talk about Yocum's illness. Yocum had kept it from most all but his family.

"And I gave him that right," Jobe said. "Dr. Yocum has been my partner for 35 years. It's almost like losing a brother or a member of your family."

Somewhere along the way, years ago, Yocum had spent the morning treating and meeting with Angels players. It was a Sunday, as Port remembered. The general manager of the team, Port had invited his parents to watch a game from his private booth. As was his custom, Yocum had slipped into the back of the box, from where he'd keep an eye on the players.

Unbeknownst to Port, his mother began to choke on a piece of food. He felt someone brush past his chair, and continued to watch the game. Yocum stepped in behind Port's mother, performed the Heimlich Maneuver, patted her on the back and asked if she were OK. She said she was and thanked him.

Port only then realized his mother had been in distress, and that Yocum likely had saved her life.

"I turned around and I saw Lew Yocum's back," Port said. "He was leaving the booth. Gone. Before I could even thank him. That was Lew. Always there. Always reliable. Never credit, never limelight. Certainly he had unbelievable expertise. But, also, unbelievable dignity and compassion."

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