This is likely to be a record-setting year in baseball. Players are on track to eclipse the number of Tommy John surgeries ever performed in a year, breaking 2012’s old record of 69 operations across the major and minor leagues. Despite efforts to rest pitchers and reduce the rate of elbow injury, surgeries are still spiking. The surgery has gained such an aura of inevitability that one cause for its prevalence may be pitchers’ expectation that they’ll go under the knife sooner or later. Brian Wilson, a reliever with the Dodgers, told the New York Times, “[N]ow people are getting Tommy John with the slightest tear. … It’s very precautious.”
As baseball struggles to emerge from the taint of the steroid era, the rise of Tommy John surgery has mostly been treated as a problem of players’ health, but the normalizing of this kind of repair points to a similar problem with the way players strain to meet impossible expectations of their bodies.
Tommy John surgery may have escaped the stigma of “cheating” because, although surgery is invasive, the procedure seems intuitively more natural than popping pills. Instead of introducing a foreign substance to the body, the surgery replaces a pitcher’s ulnar collateral ligament with one of his own tendons from elsewhere in the body. It’s more like using skin grafts to cover a burn than slathering on steroid cream. Of course, it also bears a more than passing resemblance to adulterating your blood with your own blood, as Lance Armstrong and his teammates did.
Why doesn’t Tommy John surgery draw comparisons to doping? The surgery isn’t just more natural with respect to its methods, but also in terms of its aims. Although some baseball players believe that they’ll come back stronger from the procedure, the goal isn’t to augment the player’s pitching, but to repair an injury. The players are being returned to natural health, not pushed past normal (well, normal for a pro athlete) ability. The surgery passes the same test as double-amputee Oscar Pistorius’s carbon fiber legs—acceptable as long as they don’t make him better than he was with his original, flesh and blood legs.
Although the surgeries may simply restore pitchers to their pre-injury abilities, there is something about them that does fly in the face of the natural order. Of the 80 percent of pitchers who return to form, some will be re-injured and repatched. The cycle of injury, surgery, re-injury, new surgery treats the human body like one of Henry Ford’s cars; plentifully stocked with swappable parts. The damage is treated less like a wound and more like an ordinary part of work.
The erasure of injuries isn’t limited to baseball players or professional athletes. Glowing, vibrant health is treated as the natural state of every American, prompting suspicion or censure when individuals fall short of the ideal. Recent mothers have faced particular pressure to return to the “natural” state of their pre-baby bodies, treating the natural side-effects of pregnancy as aberrant.
In an essay for The Daily Beast, Katie Gentile condemned the trend of making the physical tolls of birth invisible and unspeakable, “It is chilling to watch the culture become more and more obsessed with babies, while the evidence of how these babies are created is removed from public view.” Aggressive post-pregnancy diets, exercise regimes, and photoshopping help reinforce the understanding that weakness is unnatural and shameful.
Like the pitchers undergoing a second or third round of surgery, these women are expected to bounce back to their old selves, no matter how unnatural the process. Instead of living with their natural bodies, they are expected to conform to the ideal of the “ageless body.” Health is natural, but being unmarked by experience is not. Trying too hard to restore what has been lost can blind us to the natural limits of our bodies. The new “natural” promises little mercy to those who don’t shape up.