John does not look like a medical miracle. He is a tall, blue-eyed, brown-haired Hoosier-turned-Californian. His brimming self-confidence is softened somewhat by a slight, affecting stammer. But John is also a realist, and he knows how near his career was to ending and how his life might have been changed. He is 35 now, and still pitching, contrary to what most people predicted four years ago. Sprawled across a chair in the living room of his ranch-style house, hard by the 9th tee of the Yorba Linda Country Club, he recently recalled the most trying period of his life.
"The second operation was the real kicker," he said. "If the first hadn't succeeded, I would have been able to lead a normal life, I just wouldn't have been able to pitch. If the second had failed, I would have had a hand like a claw. I wouldn't have been able to open doors, swing a golf club. I would have had to learn how to do some things righthanded. But God must have been looking out for me, because that nerve damage kept me from pitching in 1975, and that was the best thing that could have happened to my arm. I was in a cast for 16 weeks. When I got out of it, I couldn't grip a baseball. I couldn't pinch a clothespin. I was told by a neurologist that a nerve grows an inch a month, and I had about 16 inches of nerve to regenerate."
John would not accept Dr. Jobe's forecast. "I told him, 'You're a great doctor and I believe in you. But you're wrong. I will come back. You did an excellent job inside my arm. Now it's up to me. I know how much pain my body can stand—and it's quite a bit. I know how hard I can work, and if it takes 18 hours a day, I'll do it. I will come back.' "
His comeback was one of the most astonishing in the history of sports, the stuff that Jimmy Stewart-June Allyson movies were made of. And John's wife Sally did play a role familiar to connoisseurs of old films.
"Sally got out her old softball glove and started playing catch with me in the front yard as soon as I was able to throw," says John. Lobbing the ball no more than 30 feet to his wife was the best John could manage in the first stages of his arduous rehabilitation. He had so little use of his fingers that he could not get his thumb on the ball, and, says Sally, "his forearm was no bigger around than mine." With a withered arm and a clawlike hand, John reported to the Dodgers' spring training camp in 1975. His teammates were staggered by his appearance. "He couldn't throw a ball from here to that chair," says Don Sutton, gesturing to a folding chair in the Dodger clubhouse no more than 15 feet away.
John began his spring training by awkwardly throwing balls against a concrete wall, fielding the rebounds and throwing again. He could have been a city kid playing catch with himself against a stoop. This ritual completed, he would put his rebuilt elbow in ice, as if he had just completed nine innings. Gradually he increased the distance from 30 to 75 feet. He worked with weights to strengthen atrophied muscles, and he ran. And ran. John took up jogging some 10 years ago, and he now runs as many as eight miles daily. His legs, so vital to his pitching, have never been a problem.
When the Dodgers broke camp, John stayed behind, throwing against the wall and running. When he joined them 10 days into the season, he felt confident enough to try throwing to another human being, bullpen Catcher Mark Cresse. Red Adams, the pitching coach, offered counsel, though he was among those who saw little chance of John's pitching again. "It was a bleak-looking situation," Adams says, remembering John's pathetic efforts. "What worried me was his hand. He had trouble even holding the ball. But his undying faith was remarkable."
To grip the ball properly, John had to tape the first two fingers of his left hand together and then, with his right hand, force his left thumb onto the ball and mold the claw to the correct size. He was like a man with a mechanical hand. Remarkably, his pitching motion was unaltered, so there seemed little chance of his further damaging his arm. By June, John felt encouraged enough to try throwing batting practice. "It took all that time just to throw hard enough to pitch B.P.," says John, "but I didn't do so badly. Of course, I didn't throw a lot of strikes."
"If he was ever discouraged, he masked it well," says teammate Steve Garvey. "A lot of guys would've been embarrassed to do what he did. There were days when he wasn't close to the plate."
John traveled with the team, pitching batting practice every day for 15 minutes and throwing for another half hour or more to Adams or Cresse in the bullpen. His arm was stronger, but the nerve controlling his fingers was still not responding. John realized that if he could not regain full use of his hand, his hopes for pitching again would be dashed. "Then one day in July it happened," he says. "I was preparing to throw when I discovered I could bend my fingers. I hadn't been able to do that since the first operation in September. I knew then it was just a matter of time. I had cleared the biggest hurdle."