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Baseball legend

Pitching great Tommy John lends his arm in local softball game

Pitching great Tommy John lends his arm in local softball game

July 16, 2006|by MARK KELLER

HAGERSTOWN

It might have been one of the strangest requests a slow-pitch softball team has ever made of an opposing pitcher.

"Tommy, can we get a picture of you with our team?"

Then again, the pitcher in question wasn't your ordinary slow-pitch softball player.

Former Major League pitcher Tommy John toed the rubber Saturday for Tri-State Fellowship in its Hagerstown Area Church Softball League game against Church of the Nazarene at Fairgrounds Park. He pitched two innings before signing numerous autographs and posing for several photos - including one with the Nazarene team.

"The Red Sox never asked me to be in their team photo," John said as the Nazarene players gathered around him for the snapshot.

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John was in town to speak at the church league's annual sports dinner, but it was a call from league President Mike Kelbaugh - who plays for Tri-State - that got John into the pitcher's circle.

Kelbaugh said the idea to have John pitch came to him as he watched the Legends and Celebrity All-Star Softball Game last weekend, a part of Major League Baseball's all-star weekend in Pittsburgh. John pitched in that game, too.

"I said to my wife, 'Wouldn't that be neat if he would pitch for us?'" Kelbaugh said. "I asked him if he would pitch a couple of innings, and he agreed."

John, who won 288 games and played for six teams in his 26-year career, didn't have one of his better outings Saturday. He gave up five runs in the first inning before blanking Nazarene in the second.

"My defense didn't help me out much that first inning," John said.

Tri-State trailed 5-3 when John turned the game over to the bullpen and took a seat on the bench, welcoming fans bearing hats, gloves, baseballs and softballs for him to sign.

"I was kind of nervous in the field, playing with a legend," said Kelbaugh, who played third base behind John. "He still has an ego. He said all those guys in the Legends game still have that ego, still want to win. We had a blast."

John now is as recognizable for the medical procedure that bears his name as he is for what he did on the baseball field as a professional. The so-called "Tommy John surgery" replaces a damaged ligament in a pitcher's elbow with a tendon from the forearm or leg.

In 1974, John was the first professional athlete to have the procedure done. He was given a 1 percent chance of pitching again. He returned in 1976, and pitched until 1989.

Fittingly, John said he would talk about determination during his appearance Saturday night at the league's banquet.

"In order to be successful, you have to know what you're good at, and be willing to work at what you're not good at," John said. "You have to keep improving yourself."

As John headed to his car, Kelbaugh shouted, "Tommy, we're going to get you a win."

Tri-State at least kept John from taking the loss, rallying to take the lead in the fourth inning before losing, 11-10.

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