Tommy John won 288 games in his major-league career, but Unicoi County baseball standout Ethan Rice didn’t want to be mentioned in the same sentence with him — at least not this way.
That’s because the former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher is more famous for a surgery than all those victories.
Who could have ever imagined a cutting-edge surgery performed on a professional athlete living in the bright lights of Los Angeles back in 1974 would one day reset the career of a high school kid from Erwin.
Rice went through ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction on May 30. Less than four months later, Rice was surprisingly given the thumbs-up by world-renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews to return to basketball for day one of practice. Rice was also cleared for the upcoming baseball season.
“We originally thought I wouldn’t be back for basketball until Christmas or January,” said Rice. “When I heard I would be able to start playing right now, it was probably the best news I’ve heard in a long time — to know I won’t miss any of my senior year and be able to play with all of the other seniors. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to play basketball this year, and that scared me.”
Rice’s journey actually started many years before he was born. Almost three decades ago, the left-handed John faced what appeared to be the end of his baseball career. He had won 124 games and was 31 years old.
There were no MRIs available in 1974, but Dodgers team physician Dr. Frank Jobe was able to diagnose the issue. According to “Dr. Frank Jobe, Tommy John and the Surgery That Changed Baseball Forever,” the procedure had entered Jobe’s mind a few years before he tried it. He knew several hand surgeons who were transplanting ligaments and giving people back the use of their fingers after a severe injury.
Jobe wondered if the same work could be done in the elbow. When the opportunity with John presented itself, Jobe and John made history and were forever linked together.
John would go on to win 164 more games and pitch in the majors until he was 46 years old.
These days, Dr. Andrews is most closely associated with the surgery, and Rice traveled to Gulf Breeze, Fla., to have the procedure at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. Rice said his mom prepared him for the worst, but things didn’t go in that direction.
“It hurt a lot, but it never hurt really bad,” said Rice.
The experience was quite impressive, actually, said Rice.
“It was an awesome experience through the whole thing, going down and seeing the Andrews Institute,” said Rice. “They work on so many famous athletes. It was cool to experience that.”
Rice said he saw San Francisco 49ers running back Marcus Lattimore, and a couple of other NFL players.
After the surgery, medical personnel almost dragged Rice off the operating table and started rehabilitation.
“I had rehab the day of my surgery,” said Rice. “I don’t know what it’s called, but pushing against the wall, free weights and band work.”
Rice stayed in shutdown mode through the summer, so Monday’s return trip to Florida turned out to be quite a blessing.
“Dr. Andrews said it looked good,” said Rice. “I had been working really hard in rehab, and doing the things I was supposed to do. I think it’s about there right now. I started playing today, and throwing, and doing more things with it. I plan on being the same player, just getting better every day.”
Rice’s basketball coach, John English, said the news wasn’t just good for Ethan and his family.
“We are obviously very thankful,” said English. “When we got the news initially in the spring, my first thought was, ‘He’s done. He’s played his last basketball game.’ What bothered me, I know what basketball means to him. I don’t want to see anybody go through that. To think we were at a place where he was going through that procedure and in a matter of months he’s back, it’s pretty amazing.
“Obviously he’s blessed and fortunate it worked out the way it has.”
It should make quite a difference for the basketball program because Rice is expected to have the ball in his hands a lot — just like he has for three seasons.
“To have his experience and skill set from the get-go is real exciting for us,” said English. “He told me from day one, he wasn’t going to miss a game. I never questioned his commitment.”
When baseball rolls around, things could be better than in previous years. Rice has struggled with the elbow for quite some time.
“I’ve had arm trouble since my sophomore year, but I kind of played through it,” said Rice. “One game this year in baseball, I pitched and the day after my arm was killing me. It was swollen. That’s when I went to see Dr. Andrews.”
Rice could have his best health since a standout freshman season, and doctors have assured him the procedure went well.
“I don’t have any worries about it messing up or anything,” said Rice.
Certainly Rice’s college prospects shouldn’t be deterred. Teams are much more comfortable taking chances on prospects who have had Tommy John surgery.
Among the famous names who had the procedure are Mariano Rivera (not the classic procedure but a similar one, and it was done when he was in the minors), Kerry Wood, John Smoltz, Chris Carpenter, Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright.
Smoltz is expected to become the first Tommy John pitcher to be elected into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2015.
“I think Ethan has known from the get-go his future is probably in baseball,” said English.
Throughout this year, Rice said he got through the hard times with a little help from his friends.
“It was really my teammates and coaches and my family that helped me get through,” said Rice. “And the Erwin Physical Therapy department did a good job. It was a little bit of everybody.”