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Theory mongering abounds on the alarming number of "Tommy John" surgeries in professional baseball, otherwise known as the reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament that has imperiled several careers.
Problem: The hypothesizing has sounded too anecdotal to merit anything beyond a lot of blah, blah, blahs. To my ears, anyway.
Now, however, the sheriff weighs in. Dr. James Andrews, sports' preeminent orthopedic surgeon who has performed scores of Tommy John (and other) surgeries, wrote a position statement recently on the subject in conjunction with the American Sports Medicine Institute.
Dr. Andrews found that the spate of recent UCL tears is tied to the "similar rise in (the same injury) to adolescent pitchers at the turn of the century." He found "the injury leading to Tommy John surgery in today's young pro pitchers actually began while they were adolescent amateurs. Observations by orthopedic surgeons support this link, as the torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in a pro pitcher usually looks like it has worn out over time."
Thus the question: Why?
"Research has shown that the amount of competitive pitching and pitching while fatigued are strongly linked to injury," Dr. Andrews found. "Other risk factors may include pitching on multiple teams, pitching year-round, playing catcher when not pitching, poor pitching mechanics, and poor physical conditioning."
Some other excerpts:
• The biggest risk factor for elbow injuries in young pitchers isn't necessarily throwing too many curveballs at a young age.
Dr. Andrews found that too much competitive pitching and pitching while fatigued are bigger risk factors, although youth pitchers "may not have enough physical maturity, neuromuscular control and proper coaching instruction to throw a curveball with good mechanics. The first steps should be to learn, in order: 1) basic throwing, 2) fastball pitching, 3) change-up pitching."
• "The real solution is for young pitchers to do less full-effort pitching and more throwing (practice throws, playing other positions, playing other sports). To become a successful adult pitcher, the youth should not strive to be a 'youth pitcher' but instead should be a young athlete that is a good pitcher."
Dr. Andrews concluded, "The professional pitcher's objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun."
You will draw your own conclusions, surely. Here's mine: Parents and youth coaches share a responsibility to young athletes that cannot be understated.
The most well-respected doctor of them all believes the seeds of Tommy John surgery begin in youth baseball. They pitch too much. Sometimes, that means the dopey high school coach who lets a kid throw 160 pitches on April 3 when it's colder than Minsk. Sometimes, that means pitching Monday and catching Tuesday.
They pitch year round. They do not use other muscles playing other sports because they're prisoners to sports specialization. They just have to get that scholarship.
They are not taught properly. Dr. Andrews suggests throwing a curve isn't wise if young bodies can't handle the elbow torque, especially if they're not taught properly. Not surprising, given the criminal emphasis on winning at youth levels over teaching fundamentals.
They throw too hard. Dr. Andrews, in a recent interview, discussed the dangers of baseball showcases, where pitchers throw 15 pitches for scouts as hard as they can. He called it "dangerous."
Essentially, this is a call to let kids be kids. Let them play all the sports they can. Be an athlete, not a pitcher. Be an athlete, not a quarterback. Experience as many different team concepts as possible. A 9-year-old doesn't belong on a travel team. Why? Because he or she is nine. That's why. A 9-year-old belongs in the park with his or her friends. Travel teams beget sports specialization, which an expert here says is unhealthy.
Besides, who benefits more from the concept of "travel team?" The kid or the parent bragging about it around the water cooler?
This is not some snotty columnist opining without a hint of evidence. This is the man to whom hundreds of athletes entrust their careers. Pretty good bet he's the expert here. So when he suggests kids should be kids, we should listen. All of us.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.