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He did not regain complete use of the hand until February of 1976, less than a month before spring training. This time, however, he went to Vero Beach confident of making the team. He had tested his fingers in the Arizona Instructional League and had pitched well against rookies. Now he had to convince Alston that he was once again major league material. Alston and the other Dodgers noticed that, against all odds, John was putting some pop onto his fastball. Pity was supplanted by respect. He was activated for the 1976 season.
In his first start, on April 16 in Atlanta, he hung a curveball to Darrell Evans, who hit it for a three-run homer. John did not give up another run in the five innings he pitched. He threw seven shutout innings against Houston in his second start, and in his third—which was also his first at Dodger Stadium in nearly two years—he had a shutout working against the Pirates into the eighth inning. But he gave up a double and a single and was taken out. As he returned to the dugout the fans rose to cheer and applaud him. Tommy John was back.
He won 10 games in 1976 and had a 3.09 earned run average. He was the winner of the National League Comeback Player of the Year award. Last season he became a 20-game winner for the first time, pitched in his first playoff and World Series games and finished second to Steve Carlton in the Cy Young Award voting. This year he has won 12 games. Teammates and opponents contend that he is a far better pitcher now than he was before he hurt his arm. "I know they had to graft a new arm on John," says Pete Rose, exaggerating a bit, "but did they have to give him Sandy Koufax'?"
Steve Busby suffered from the Impingement Syndrome, in which the rotator cuff does not slide smoothly on the top of the shoulder. His swollen right rotator cuff muscle was being pinched between the acromion (the outer extension of the shoulder blade) and the humerus. He also had bone spurs on the back of the shoulder and some deterioration of the shoulder socket. Dr. Jobe operated on Busby on July 19, 1976. To create room for the pinched muscle, he shaved off a thin slice of bone from underneath the acromion on top of Busby's shoulder. A small portion of the deltoid muscle was peeled back in the process and then reattached. Once again Dr. Jobe's prognosis was gloomy. Busby, too, was advised to seek employment elsewhere. Rotator cuff injuries had ended the careers of the Yankees' Mel Stottlemyre, the Mets' George Stone, the Dodgers' Don Drysdale and Ron Perranoski, a relief pitcher for four different teams. In fact, no pitcher was known to have sufficiently recovered from significant rotator cuff damage to play again in the majors. Nonetheless, like John before him, Busby was not about to pack it in.
Busby did not attempt to throw a ball for four months, until November of 1976, when he began playing catch in his yard. Last year, he reported early to spring training and found he could throw well enough to pitch batting practice, although with discomfort. His muscles were not recovering as they should, and he was sore after even the lightest workout. He was returned to the disabled list on April 1, reinstated on May 4 and then assigned to Kansas City's Class A Daytona Beach farm team for additional conditioning. He pitched in only one game in 1977, for Daytona Beach, allowing five runs in three innings. At midseason he returned to Southern California, where he is one of John's neighbors in Yorba Linda, and on Aug. 8 he underwent surgery again, this time for a high school knee injury that had been acting up.
In November 1977 Busby began working out with a number of other convalescent players—notably, Fred Lynn, Frank Tanana and Bobby Grich—at the Los Angeles Rams' training quarters in Long Beach. He was in excellent shape when he reported for spring training this year, and his early efforts were heartening. "Every time out something seemed to improve," he says, "and it all culminated when Whitey told me I'd made the club. I felt I could contribute."
Busby started against Cleveland on April 9 and did not allow a run in 5? innings, giving up two hits and walking three. It was an encouraging beginning. "But in my next start everything began to fall apart," he says. "I was losing velocity and control. One of my pitches was clocked at only 55 miles an hour. I felt embarrassed. I threw as poorly as I can remember anyone throwing in the major leagues. My arm felt good, but the ball just wasn't going anywhere." He pitched only 10? innings in four starts for the Royals, allowing 12 runs on 14 hits and 10 walks. His earned run average was 10.12.
On April 28 Herzog told Busby he had been optioned to the Royals' Triple A team in Omaha. "I had considered the possibility," Busby says. "I knew I had to do something, but when Whitey told me, it was very difficult to take." Busby debated with himself for two days whether he wanted to keep on struggling, with no guarantees he could ever come back to what he had been. He decided to go to Omaha. "I don't want to prolong this thing," he says. "If there is progress to be made, it should be made reasonably soon. If I don't have the ability to pitch anymore, we should find out."
Bill Fischer, the Royals' minor league pitching instructor, fiddled with the videotape machine in the visiting manager's office at Denver's Mile High Stadium. "This will show it," he mumbled. "It's just a little mechanical thing in his motion. If Buzz still had a sore arm, he wouldn't be throwing the way he is. Hell, the other night he had more velocity on his breaking ball than on his fastball. If his arm was still hurting, it'd be just the opposite. No way he could throw the way he's throwing if his arm was bad. You can't hide a sore arm."
Busby had survived only 3? innings against the Denver Bears two nights earlier. He had given up six earned runs. It was the worst showing of what was proving to be an erratic minor league season. In his previous appearance, he had shut out Evansville for eight innings, allowing only two hits and throwing 92 pitches before leaving the game. The Royals want him to throw no more than 100 pitches per outing until he has established the durability of his rebuilt shoulder. Bus by, affable in good times and bad, was not entirely displeased with what he had accomplished since being sent down. He had seen, he said, "possibilities."