Tommy John, 1978

February 26, 2007

Mes·mer (mĕz’mer), Franz or Friedrich Anton 1734–1815. Austrian physician who sought to treat disease through animal magnetism, an early therapeutic application of hypnotism.

mes·mer·ize (mĕz’me-rīz’) tr.v. –ized, -iz·ing, iz·es 1. To spellbind; enthrall: “he could mesmerize an audience by the sheer force of his presence” (Justin Kaplan). 2. To hypnotize.

Wil·ker (wĭ­l’ker), Josh. Born 1968. American proofreader who rode public transportation a lot.

wil·ker·ize (wĭ­l’ke-rīz’) tr.v. –ized, -iz·ing, iz·es 1. To mar or erode the value of, paradoxically as a result of both neglect and an overly needy sense of attachment: “I have tons of wilkerized [baseball] cards” (Anonymous). 2. To damage by way of ineptitude or overly crude handling: “Too much cursing. The posting was wilkerized” (Earl Fibril). 3. To squander: “But, alas, I had spent the entire evening smoking marijuana resin through a punctured Sprite can and watching old episodes of Kung Fu. My chances of graduating had been wilkerized.” (Butch Pixis III)

Of the four definitions listed above, only two of them are actually to be found in either of my two dictionaries, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. OK, yes, wilkerize has not yet found its way into the official records of language, which I suppose should not be surprising since I only began to push for its wider usage three days ago in this extremely obscure forum while ruminating on the greatness of Harmon Killebrew.

A more surprising exclusion from my two fairly recent dictionaries (both published since the year 2000) is the term Tommy John surgery, which in both tomes should be but isn’t tucked in between tommy gun (or Tommy gun) (“a Thompson submachine gun”) and tommyrot (“utter foolishness”).

By comparison, Lou Gehrig’s disease is listed in both books, leading me to believe that, even though Gary Cooper, or even Gary Coleman, never starred in a movie about Tommy John, Tommy John surgery has a chance to someday make it into the dictionaries. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the term Tommy John surgery is currently used more often than the term Lou Gehrig’s disease. I don’t know how these things are decided, but maybe there’s a word counter somewhere, a guy with a big blackboard who makes a mark each time a nondictionaried word (such as “nondictionaried”) is used, then when the predetermined limit is reached he rings a bell or sends a message via suctioned pneumatic tube to some more influential cog in the high-stakes dictionary racket and the higher-up in turn adds the word to the canon.

It won’t be long for this to happen to the term Tommy John surgery, I think. The annual late-February, early-March spike in the usage of the term has become a herald that winter is on its last legs: every year at this time, news reports on the recovery of hurlers who have recently undergone Tommy John surgery abound. What baseball fan doesn’t enjoy such stories? It’s always a pleasant read, because it’s always about guys you sort of forgot about who are coming back. You may have even assumed they were through, but here they are again, possibly even stronger than ever, thanks to good old Tommy John surgery.

Anyway, the inclusion of the term in the dictionaries will of course immortalize the man it is named after, Tommy John, pictured here in 1978 at the very crest of what was at the time a miraculous comeback from arm trouble. In 1974 he had been the first athlete to get the now famous surgery, and he had then sat out the 1975 season with the odds of his ever pitching again placed at a hundred to one by his surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe. In his early thirties during his recovery, not a young man in terms of athletic life, Tommy John must have had thoughts throughout the long exile that he might never come back. But come back he did, compiling a decent 10-10 record in his first year with a reconstructed arm (at the time, due to the popularity of the Six Million Dollar Man television show, Tommy John’s repaired appendage was often referred to as being “bionic”), then in 1977 helped lead the Dodgers to a pennant with a 20-7 record that would have been a shining accomplishment for anyone and was downright astounding for a man who had just a couple years earlier been basically marked for athletic death.

More amazing still, Tommy John went on to play for a total of 26 seasons in the major leagues, racking up even more post-surgery than pre-surgery victories. He hasn’t yet made it into the Hall of Fame (in the most recent voting he was named on 22.9% of the ballots, far short of the required 75%), but even if he never does his name will certainly live on after him. As befitting a man who had his most, well, mesmerizing moments in sunny, optimistic Dodger blue, Tommy John will soon enough become enshrined in our lexicon as part of a term that has come to signify a kind of all-American nexus of can-do medical acumen, athletic prowess, and never-quit regenerative spirit. Here in America we can do it! We can fix what is broken! We can come up with a solution! We can return from the disabled list! We can heal the sick! We can feed the hungry! We can maybe even purify and renew the seemingly hopelessly wilkerized!


One comment

  1. 1.  8 comments from the old CG site:

    peterk said…
    I loved watching him as a Yankee in the late 80s on the old WPIX with the Scooter and Bill White. TJ Took his time. Never gave in. Great if you liked that sort of thing. And I loved that sort of thing. Another beautiful column.

    3:29 PM

    Walewander said…
    Dear Josh,

    Wonderful read again, thanks. Thought’d I’d let you know that even if ‘Wilkerized’ is never enshrined in the OED, I recently named my Diamond Mind league team the Peterborough Cardboard Gods. Lou Gehrig, Lefty Grove, “old Aches and Pains” Luke Appling, Schnozz Lombardi and “Tobacco Chewin’ Johnny” Lanning are just some of the stars you can catch at O-Pee-Chee Field.

    3:59 PM

    Anonymous said…
    The closest thing to the big blackboard that we have is Google. “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” leads “Tommy John Surgery” 656,000 to 168,000. TJS’s spring training spike gives it the Google News lead, though, 712-654. I was going to try searching for variations on the possessive terms and things like “Lou Gerhig’s Disease,” but I’m a lazy bastard.

    4:25 PM

    Josh Wilker said…
    Peterk: Yeah, gotta love those crafty lefties. That Yankee uniform kept me from fully embracing John, but I always respected him.

    walewander: Go Cardboard Gods!

    Anonymous: That’s some good sleuthin’.

    Everyone: I forgot to add somewhere as a completely unrelated postscipt that there is a player listed on baseballreference.com named Tommy Johns. He played for one year for the Baltimore Marylands of the National Association in 1873 (http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/MAR/1873.shtml), going 0 for 4. My two favorite Baltimore Marylands that year were men known only as “McDoolan” and “Jones.” Jones went 3 for 4 and McDoolan went 1 for 4 and was the losing pitcher in his only appearance. What this has to do with anything, I don’t know, but I love it.

    4:49 PM

    Michael said…
    What anything has to do with anything, we can only guess.

    While I share your Red Sox based antipathy for anything Yankee, I had a similar sort of fondness for John. I felt the same way about Frank Tanana.

    I discovered, again I guess, that the 1980 Yankees had both John and Luis Tiant, Gaylord Perry, and Jim Kaat. Whoever had the Tiger Balm contract for that team was rollin’ in bucks.

    Ever since I began to approach geezerhood myself,(I am exactly 8 days older than Pedro Martinez), I have had a growing sympathy and affection for the Jamie Moyers and
    Bret Saberhagens of the world-the guy who can’t throw 95 anymore-or perhaps never could-but gets by with changeups, scuffballs, control, and guts.

    I guess because that’s how life feels to me now.

    9:53 AM

    Michael said…

    Josh and all-check this out-the Wagner card just set another record.


    9:57 AM

    Josh Wilker said…

    I liked watching the aging Tanana too. He had probably the most drastic early career to late career change, going from a complete flamethrower (who I believe loved his wine, women, and song) to a complete mush-thrower (who was a big God guy. I think he may have even credited the loss of his fastball to a humbling search for a higher power.).

    That said, my favorite junkball performance ever was by, of all people, Pedro Martinez against the Indians in the 1999 playoffs. Because of arm trouble he could not throw a fastball but came on in relief in the deciding game of the series to throw nothing but junk for several no-hit innings.

    10:59 AM

    Butch Pixus III said…
    …and then there is the oft-related anecdote concerning an acquaintance of ours… a certain insensitive, barbaric, culturally deprived, Bronx-born, Bronx-raised lout who presently makes his home in the rotting log of Baltimore’s finest academic circles.

    When, as a schoolboy, the awful news of John Lennon’s murder on December the 8th, 1980 filtered out through the news media, abetted by playground chatter the next morning, the individual in question collapsed sobbing…

    He later admitted that upon hearing that “John was Dead,” his immediate assumption was that the Yankee lefty had passed away on the heels of consecutive 20-win campaigns, and such a tragedy was more than he could bear.

    He still describes his immediate feelings upon recognition of this error as “one of relief.” Not that he disliked the Beatles or anything, of course.

    Such is the callous and unrefined mindset of your average Philistine/Yankee fan, set in amber
    for all eternity.

    12:22 PM

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