TERRE HAUTE —
Sporting a Gerstmeyer-orange sweater, Tommy John seemed very much at home as he stood before a banquet crowd gathered in his honor. He was in his element. Among old friends. Gracious to new ones. Quick with a joke. Ready with a broad smile. A first-class guy at a first-class event.
That was obvious in the welcome-home events staged by the Terre Haute Parks Department on Thursday. They were a heartfelt and warm statement about what Tommy John means to Terre Haute — and, no less, what it means to him.
Shortly before his banquet, the raw October breezes that skipped across his childhood ball diamond in Terre Haute’s Avenues neighborhood undoubtedly felt for John like the winds of time, as he must have flashed back to games played, skills repeated until mastered, mysteries of a curveball learned, friendships formed, foes vanquished.
It was on that diamond that John had played both his first games and his last non-professional game before arriving in the big leagues 13 months out of high school, where he played for 26 seasons in such historic and awe-inspiring ballparks as Chavez Ravine for the Dodgers, old Comiskey, Fenway, Wrigley Field, old Yankee Stadium.
And, back at home, it is that handsome, restored northside Spencer F. Ball Park diamond — now devoted to softball — that will forever bear the name Tommy John Field and teach others about his prowess and pride.
For John and many, baseball at its best is a metaphor for integrity, perseverance, character, teamwork and lifelong connections. The smack of ball on leather, the crack of the bat, the smell of a horsehide glove and the chatter of the infield are timeless. Sadly, those simplicities have been tainted by steroids and avarice. But those are the perversions, not the real baseball.
Baseball is a game John began at age 8 and a game that still shapes his life at 70. It is his game for life — the greatest game in the world, he called it.
John also called it the most democratic game — not a political reference, he was quick to point out. His meaning was that anyone can take it up or watch it or share it — no matter their skill level. Keep practicing, he would say, and you can develop a niche as a player or fan or student.
John showed that perseverance by being, as one person called him, a “guinea pig” for the elbow surgery that now bears his name and that hundreds of current major league pitchers have had performed. But when he had the surgery it was largely unknown. Having it — and rehabilitating from it — showed John’s perseverance, grit and competitive spirit.
Amazingly, John went 90-45 in the five years after his surgery, while pitching for the Dodgers, including in two World Series. (And to complete the stats that demand his overdue admission into the Baseball Hall of Fame: 288 career wins, seventh-most among lefthanders, 26th among all pitchers; 3.34 lifetime earned-run average; three 20-win seasons; just one fewer victory (164) after surgery than for Sandy Koufax’s entire brilliant career; and more victories than 34 Hall of Famers, including Robin Roberts, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Terre Haute’s Mordecai Brown and Don Drysdale. Enough said.)
Terre Haute can be proud of how it has now honored John. Thursday’s events showed the pride the old hometown takes in one of its favorite sons. The field naming, the dinner, the banners at Seventh and Wabash, the mayoral proclamation, the business and organizations’ support all show that pride.
John equally showed his pride — pride that he grew up in Terre Haute, at the time he grew, and the people with whom he grew up. And he paid his hometown a great compliment when he recalled what his dad — another Tommy John — told him: “I don’t care what you do in baseball. … You will always only be Tommy John from Terre Haute, Indiana.”
To which the son responded, in word and deed, from boy to man, from sandlot to major leagues, by following his self-admonition to be “the best Tommy John you can be.”
And to never forget his hometown.