Tommy John was 31 years old in 1974 when Dr. Frank W. Jobe devised and performed a revolutionary new procedure – what we know today as Tommy John surgery – on the major league pitcher.
Spokane Indians pitcher Alec Asher was only 14 – an incredibly young age for TJ surgery – when Dr. James R. Andrews performed the procedure on him in Birmingham, Ala.
“I was so young, I didn’t really know what it was and that it was so bad,” said the right-handed reliever, who is tied for fourth in the Northwest League with two saves and in 52/3 innings has struck out eight and allowed just a pair of hits and no runs.
It’s not surprising his arm needed saving at such a drastically young age.
As a sixth-grader at his charter school in Lakeland, Fla., Asher made the junior varsity team (playing with juniors and seniors), would leave early to play Little League on Wednesdays and joined a select travel team on the weekends.
“I was pitching all day, every day,” Asher said. “Everyone asks if I threw a lot of curveballs, but I really didn’t throw that many. It was because I was throwing all the time and I always threw hard. I just overdid it.”
Then doctors, and his father, told him if he didn’t have the surgery – which involves reconstruction of a ligament in the elbow – he would never play baseball again.
“I started crying and asked where we needed to go and when we could get it done,” he said. “I realize now that it’s kind of a big deal. And it saved my arm.”
After spending a full year recovering from the surgery, Asher appeared in the Perfect Game showcases as a high school sophomore, junior and senior.
As a senior, scouts were high on his “full delivery, sweeping slider, and late diving change-up.” He led his team to an 11-1 record that season with eight wins, and one of his league’s best earned-run average (1.32). He had the third-highest number of strikeouts with 63 in 581/3 innings and only walked nine batters.
Beyond that, Asher hit .333 in 33 at-bats, and had three home runs and 19 runs batted in.
His delivery from the mound and his performance at the plate earned him attention from scouts, and in the 2010 Major League Baseball first-year player draft, the San Francisco Giants selected Asher in the 23rd round.
“It was so awesome being drafted right out of high school, I was so excited,” Asher said.
But that excitement wouldn’t last long, as doctors discovered a bone spur in his elbow during a physical.
The Giants didn’t sign Asher, who had been courted by several Division I programs (including Miami and Florida State) as a senior, and he had the bone spur removed and decided to play junior college ball so he could re-enter the draft each year instead of waiting until after his junior season at a D-I program.
“It was disappointing, but I grew up from the whole experience,” Asher said. “And like they say, everything happens for a reason.”
That reason became clear to Asher this summer, as the 20-year- old went from a 23rd- round pick in 2010 to a fourth-round pick this year by the Rangers.
“I’m kind of glad it happened, because I was only 18 and I’ve matured a lot over the past two years,” Asher added. “I’ve gone through a lot, but I look back and see it as a blessing.
“It didn’t hit me until we were sitting out here for our first series and they were doing the promos between innings, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m really playing professional baseball.’ It’s always been my dream.”
One that, thanks to Tommy John, was saved at a young age.