The name can’t be found anywhere in Nationals Park, not stitched on the back of a jersey or in the lengthy roster of front office employees or slapped on a bobblehead.
Dr. Lewis Yocum never threw a pitch, waved a runner home or swung a trade for the Nationals. But the renowned orthopedic surgeon’s influence on the organization is everywhere you look. The impact, really, is as indelible as the scars on the right elbows of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.
Yocum died this past weekend at 65 after a quiet, private fight against liver cancer. He spent 36 years as team physician for the Los Angeles Angels, in addition to his work for the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, and became known as the man who saved baseball careers. In Washington, that’s no exaggeration.
His name usually popped up when something bad happened, ironic for a man known for his wit and gentlemanly manner. Bum shoulder? Elbow pop? Knee hurt? Something not right? A trip to Los Angeles to see Yocum usually followed. Healing did, too. Didn’t matter if you were a big name or no name.
Baseball Prospectus once named Yocum baseball’s No. 2 “super surgeon,” behind do-everything Dr. James Andrews, which only hints at his influence. The Nationals, along with the rest of baseball, have been frequent customers over the years, from Luis Ayala to Chad Cordero to many, many more.
Yocum was the doctor entrusted to repair the torn ulnar collateral ligament in Strasburg’s elbow in 2010, the man in whose steady hands the Nationals put the future of their generational pitching prospect.
Each year, Yocum handled about 50 Tommy John surgeries. The injury used to slice apart careers, as well as elbows. But after Dr. Frank Jobe pioneered the ligament replacement on John in 1974 that transplanted a tendon from a different part of his body, Yocum helped transform the procedure into something that bordered on routine.
Strasburg, of course, is well-removed from the surgery and can rev his fastball up to 99 miles per hour, as if nothing unusual happened.
Yocum’s work is on display each time Zimmermann takes the mound, too. The doctor performed Tommy John surgery on him back in 2009. Now Zimmermann might be the ace of a gifted starting rotation.
When first-round draft pick Lucas Giolito’s right elbow gave out last year, Yocum did the Tommy John surgery. Same for left-handed prospect Sammy Solis, signed to a seven-figure deal after being drafted in the second round. Matt Purke, perhaps the organization’s top left-handed pitching prospect after accepting an even larger signing bonus, visited Yocum to clean up his pitching shoulder in August.
All three are in various stages of return: Giolito at the team’s complex in Viera, Fla., Solis with the Potomac Nationals and Purke with the Hagerstown Suns.
Yocum did more than save pitchers from baseball’s injury scrap heap and repair UCLs with the expediency the rest of us would swap out a tire.
Before the Nationals used the No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft on third baseman Anthony Rendon, dogged by questions about his ability to remain healthy, Yocum gave him a clean bill of health.
Even second baseman Danny Espinosa spent time with Yocum during the offseason to seek guidance for his torn left rotator cuff.
The list goes on.
After Yocum’s death became public Tuesday, tributes flowed in from everyone from commissioner Bud Selig to superagent Scott Boras. But what will last, more than emailed statements and tweets of regret and sentimental memories, are the players Yocum helped heal. The ones who can pitch inning after inning, who can still swing a bat or run the bases became the doctor fixed them.
No, Yocum didn’t rate a prospect on the 20-to-80 scale, negotiate a free-agent contract or fill out a lineup card. He made those things possible as he kept careers and dreams alive. One of the giant-headed racing presidents may draw more attention from the average fan. But Yocum’s work healing baseball’s wounded was subtle — even anonymous to many outside baseball. But every time Strasburg or Zimmermann takes the mound, the doctor will be there, too.