Every winter, the baseball writers sit down and stare at a list of players eligible for enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame. They look at their wins and losses, the number of rings they'll carry into Cooperstown, their reputation on and off the field, and think back, remembering if the player was truly immortal rather than merely very, very good. In the coming years, names will come across their desks: Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera, John Smoltz, A.J. Burnett, David Wells and who knows, maybe Francisco Liriano. Some of these pitchers are clear, unquestionable first-ballot Hall of Famers. There are nearly 900 wins and 600 saves in that group.
And they almost didn't happen.
Imagine a sport without more than 300 wins for Clemens. Instead, his career ended almost before it started when a shoulder injury cut the promising young pitcher down after only two years in Boston. Imagine a New York Yankees dynasty without Mariano Rivera, whose 413 saves and four rings all came after his elbow was reconstructed.
We're not even discussing hitters yet, or whatever you call Bo Jackson. The fact is the game of baseball owes a lot to Dr. James Andrews, enough to consider him for the ultimate honor.
Andrews isn't the only doctor in the country who does Tommy John surgery. He's also not the first. It's clear, though, that when a pitcher gets to the stage when he wants a second opinion, Andrews is the first name that comes up. When Octavio Dotel, now a reliever for the Atlanta Braves, was having elbow pain two seasons ago, he went to five separate physicians before deciding on Andrews.
"I wanted the best," Dotel said at the time.
Andrews has made his reputation with hundreds of these operations. In his newly constructed facility in Birmingham, Ala., Andrews can oversee several surgeries at once. "He has uncanny timing," said Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the team physician for the Cincinnati Reds and a protégé of Andrews. "He seems to know just when to come in, to make the right suggestion, to understand not just what's going on then, but what's about to happen."
But the Hall of Fame? How do we determine if Andrews, or any nonplayer, is a candidate for Cooperstown? There is no Bill James-penned list of questions to guide us here. In a world where Marvin Miller and Buck O'Neil stand outside looking in, does Andrews' work as one of the top sports surgeons meet the lofty standards of the Hall?
In a word, yes.
A surgeon's job is to repair, to rebuild. A sports surgeon does more than repair and rebuild an arm or a knee; he rebuilds careers. In some cases, he creates careers where there might have been nothing, turning might-have-beens into legends using a scalpel and an arthroscope.
Using that criteria alone -- forget any other contributions -- Andrews makes it into the Hall of Fame without a doubt. Looking at the names above or even just Clemens and Rivera is a reminder that Andrews' work has allowed others to build their own Hall of Fame cases. It's somewhat surprising that here in 2007, no pitcher in the Hall of Fame sports one of the famous 3-inch scars from Tommy John surgery. As we move forward, starting with Smoltz or Rivera depending on who retires first, we'll begin to see the Hall start to mimic baseball, where one in nine pitchers last season had undergone the procedure.
None of this considers the work that Andrews has done in prevention and research. It was his vision that led to the American Sports Medicine Institute, the leading center for baseball-related research in the world. The work at ASMI, led by Andrews, has led to the institution of pitch counts by Little League. Those scientifically based limits will hopefully one day lead to fewer surgeries on what seem to be younger and younger arms, giving more young players the chance to get out on the field and pitch, perhaps even to make the Hall of Fame themselves. While it will be a long time before today's Little Leaguer is tomorrow's immortal, the work Andrews has done now to make that possible is priceless.
No story comes to mind more than when Andrews examined Jeff Bagwell last year. Bagwell was fighting to stay in the game and Andrews was asked to take a look at yet another future Hall of Famer. Andrews had experienced his own health-related setback just a week previous, having suffered a heart attack. Bagwell came to Birmingham to see Andrews and instead of going to an examination room in Andrews' own state-of-the-art hospital, Bagwell was led to Andrews' hospital room. According to Bagwell, Andrews hopped out of his bed to examine him.
The scene must have been amazing -- two stars, both trying their best to keep doing what they loved to do. Andrews wasn't able to save Bagwell's career, but he was able to give him some of the closure he needed. Bagwell wouldn't have taken anyone else's word for it. Sometimes it takes a legend to talk to a legend.
Will Carroll is an author of Baseball Prospectus.