By David Mullen
Since March 2004, Keith Meister, M.D. has been the team doctor for the Texas Rangers. But these days, he is best known for a very specialized field of arm surgery. Specifically, he is noted for ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, otherwise known as “Tommy John Surgery.”
Los Angeles Dodgers team physician Dr. Frank Jobe first performed the revolutionary procedure on left-handed pitcher Tommy John in 1974. John was able to revive a career that ended with 288 victories, which ranks seventh all-time in Major League Baseball among left-handed pitchers.
A Yonkers, N.Y. native, Dr. Meister was Cum Laude at the Boston University School of Medicine and worked in Birmingham, Ala. with noted arm surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Among his other positions was as a knee surgeon at The Institute of Orthopedics at Royal National Orthopedic Hospital in Middlesex, England. Dr. Meister’s grandfather was an inspiration to him, having graduated as a surgeon from Harvard Medical School in 1926.
Dr, Meister has also had stints as team doctor with the Dallas Stars, the NBA D-League, the University of Florida, the University of Virginia and USA Hockey.
“My practice has changed quite a bit over the years,” Dr. Meister, a youthful 56, said. “And it has really gravitated toward baseball. Part of my commission at the University of Florida was taking care of the baseball team, so I got very involved in that and it was part of my early research. But in the last 15 years [as Rangers team doctor] things have gotten more focused on baseball. Seventy-five to 80 percent of patients I see are baseball players, and mainly throwers.”
He played baseball and soccer as a youth, “but I realized I wasn’t going to play professionally,” Dr. Meister said. “So I figured I would be on the other side.”
Dr. Meister, a Mansfield resident, is with a team of seven other doctors and 60 employees at the Texas Metroplex Institute of Sports Medicine & Orthopedics in Arlington. The 21,000-square-foot facility is as modern as it is impressive. The rehabilitation area alone has a basketball hoop, indoor and outdoor pitching and batting cages and a variety of exercise equipment. “We treat the whole package here,” Dr. Meister said.
Tommy John surgery requires a 3-to 4-inch surgical incision near the elbow. Holes are drilled into the ulna and humerus bones and a tendon, usually the Palmaris tendon taken from the forearm, is woven into the holes. Depending on the patient, full rehabilitation takes approximately 14 months. “Maturation of tissue,” Dr. Meister said, is why it takes so long to recover. Surprisingly, the surgery takes less than one hour.
Dr. Meister believes baseball players become susceptible to arm injury at a young age because they simply throw too hard and too often. “There are two things that have pushed us toward the epidemic that we have today with elbow ligaments,” Dr. Meister said. “Number one is volume of throwing. The more miles you put on a car, the fewer years you are going to get out of that automobile. Everyone is born with only so many bullets in the gun, so to speak. Some guys run out of ammo in high school, some in college, some in the minor leagues, some in the big leagues and some guys can have 25-year careers like Nolan Ryan, but that is obviously is very rare. And then these days especially, kids are throwing so much harder at much younger ages that fastball velocity is a direct correlation to injury.”
He has performed Tommy John surgery on athletes as young as 14, although his patient was a very mature teenager physically, and Dr. Meister always uses caution and searches for other avenues of rehab before surgery. He estimates about 40 percent of those requiring Tommy John surgery are obvious. But for the other 60 percent, he will sit down with a patient and explore all of the options.
Among the patients Dr. Meister has operated on are All-Star pitchers: Ben Sheets, Joe Nathan and Joel Hanrahan. Recently, he operated on a trifecta of Oakland Athletic starting pitchers in Jharel Cotton, Daniel Gossett and Kendall Graveman.
While no two patients are alike, Dr. Meister’s experience has made him an expert in his field. “For the most part,” Dr. Meister said, “you walk out feeling really good about what you accomplished.”