Wednesday July 30th, 2008

Tommy John won two hundred and eighty-eight games in the majors, but, of course, he remains far better known for the operation that now generically bears his name: Tommy John Surgery. In 1974, a tendon was replaced in his damaged left arm, and miraculously, he returned to pitch another thirteen years. So no one, perhaps, knows the capriciousness of athletic health better than he.

Today, John is still in baseball, the manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish, who play in the Atlantic League, one of those independent circuits, which are pretty much stocked by forgotten older players, who've been passed over by major-league organizations, but still play for peanuts because they don't know what else to do and/or they let themselves still dream that they'll catch lightning in a bottle.

And, by god, it can happen. A 32-year-old has-been named Brandon Knight was in the Atlantic League last season. Saturday night he started a game for the New York Mets.

Four nights before that, in York, Pennsylvania, Tommy John went out to the mound to remove a Bluefish pitcher who had just given up nine runs in barely more than three innings. But this time, when John took the ball from the pitcher, he also paused and embraced him.

The pitcher was Tim Drew. Who remembers now that eleven years ago, he was a glamorous first-round choice in baseball's draft? I only know because of a wonderfully touching story written by Rich Elliott in the Connecticut Post. But, oh, what was written about Tim Drew back then. Not only could the kid throw a baseball ninety-four miles an hour, but his older brother, J.D., was also selected in the first round. And not only that, seven years later, yet a third Drew brother, Stephen, was drafted in the first round.

Well, two outta three aint bad. J.D., of the Red Sox, was the most valuable player in the All-Star Game a couple weeks ago. Stephen is shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks. They made it big.

Tim did get to the majors. He pitched in all of 35 games. Mostly, though, he caromed around the minors until he ended up, 29 years old, pitching in Bridgeport, which is ironically significant, because it's the place that represents nowhere, in that old New York jibe: "everything else is Bridgeport."

The human arm is really not built to throw a baseball. Like Tommy John, like a lot of pitchers, Tim Drew's arm busted. He had an operation; three tacks were inserted in his shoulder. He came back this year, but it didn't take him long to realize that whatever he had wasn't there anymore. After the game in York, he only asked Tommy John for one more favor. Sunday, back in Bridgeport, to start the game against Camden, he put, Eric DuBose, his best friend on the team, behind the plate, and he threw one more pitch.

Then Tim Drew walked off the mound forever. He's going to go to community college. We hear about J.D. and Stephen Drew. But most ballplayers are the brother in-between. They're Tim Drew, and they hate to leave the game, but one day they realize they must.

Just give me one last pitch, and I'll be gone. It was a strike, right on the corner.

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