His Son's Stirring Recovery Makes Yank Pitcher Tommy John Baseball's Biggest Winner
"One bad thing about baseball," Sally says, "is that it takes forever to get through to the clubhouse. If you tell them it's a matter of life and death, it still takes forever. They said, 'Tommy's on the field now. We can't get him.' I said, 'You have to get him.' Then I got disconnected and had to call back." Finally she got through to Yankee bullpen coach Jeff Torborg, who called Tommy in from the sidelines, where the veteran lefthander was throwing to keep loose between starts. As he picked up the receiver, Sally thought, "I can't tell him Travis is dying." Stunned by what she did tell him, John boarded a chartered jet within minutes, en route to a small airport near Point Pleasant, N.J. Police there rushed him to the local hospital, where Sally had authorized immediate surgery to relieve pressure on Travis' brain. "I told the doctors, 'I've got to talk to somebody first,' " she recalls. "They said, 'Mrs. John, you don't have time.' "
The next morning Travis, still in a coma, was transferred by helicopter to the pediatric intensive care unit at the New York University Medical Center in Manhattan. Packing their older children, Tamara, 7, and Tommy Jr., 4, off to stay with Sally's sister in Indiana, the Johns moved into a hotel room a few blocks from the hospital, and spent 14 to 16 hours a day at Travis' bedside. "They totally integrated themselves into a world they would have preferred never to have known," says Dr. Fred Epstein, the neurosurgeon who took charge of the case. "They visited other patients of mine, and they helped out however they could. There was nothing Tommy wouldn't do, and purely out of being a good human being."
Within days of Travis' accident, his hospital room was inundated with more than 2,000 letters and cards, enough Teddy Bears to stock F A O Schwarz, and a five-foot-long stuffed tiger sent by Rusty Staub and Lee Mazzilli of the New York Mets. Among the well-wishers were President Reagan, former Presidents Ford and Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles and the Oak Ridge Boys. Some of those who sent messages knew the Johns from Tommy's seven seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but others were strangers touched by Travis' plight. "The number of people who care gives you a lot of inner strength," says Tommy.
Travis remained in a coma nearly two weeks, while his mother read or talked to him for hours on end. But as soon as he opened his eyes, his recovery was no longer in doubt. Almost immediately he recognized his father on television, learned to walk again in a matter of days, and startled Dr. Epstein by firing a rubber ball at him for a letter-high strike. "That's when I knew he was getting better," the doctor says.
Amazingly, the child had suffered only a slight skull fracture and no other broken bones—testimony, says Epstein, "to the way 2-year-olds are made," and to the fact that his fall was broken by the fender of the Johns' parked car. But the most critical factor in the little boy's survival, says the doctor, is that Sally noticed that his breathing had stopped. After bloodying her fingers trying to force his clenched jaws apart, she used the top of a nail-polish bottle to pry open his mouth. Pushing his folded tongue back into place, she heard a pop as he started to breathe again.
Four weeks to the day after the accident, the Johns dressed Travis in a Yankee cap and shirt and took him home to Franklin Lakes, N.J. His recovery, now almost complete, is not considered medically extraordinary. Dr. Epstein says he treats approximately one child a month who has fallen from a comparable height, and that while some don't survive, others leave the hospital in a matter of hours. John, like his wife a born-again Christian, regards Travis' recuperation as evidence of the power of prayer. Maybe so, but an instinct for survival seems to run in the family.
Seven years ago, John, 38, a native of Terre Haute, Ind. who broke into the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians in 1963, tore a ligament in his elbow while pitching for the Dodgers. He then underwent two landmark operations, one to transplant a tendon from his right wrist, the other to reroute a damaged nerve in the forearm. The first surgery left John's pitching hand immobile and involuntarily clenched, like a claw. The Los Angeles specialist who operated, Dr. Frank Jobe, told him he would probably never pitch again, but at age 31—the cusp of obsolescence even for many healthy pitchers—Tommy gritted his teeth, and was back with the Dodgers in less than two years. He won 47 games between 1976 and 1978, then became a free agent and signed a three-year, $1.4 million contract with the Yankees. He has gone on to win more games in the past three seasons than any other American League pitcher, and will be leading the Yanks into the American League play-offs this week. Remarkably, in his five starts during Travis' hospitalization, John allowed a superlative average of only 1.96 earned runs per game. "As Travis got better, my mental well-being did too," he explains. "It tended to take a little of the importance off wins and losses, and put things in their proper perspective. You go out and throw the ball and feel lucky just to be out there."