Monday, July 22, 2013

Erik Bedard, Knowing His Limits

By Jeff Kallman

When was the last time you could remember a pitcher taking himself out of a no-hitter in the making, however the game might have been progressing, never mind a pitcher with 10 punchouts to mitigate 5 walks? And never mind that he's a pitcher with a history of shoulder trouble including three surgeries, thus a little more mindful than many of the absolute fragility of his profession?

Erik Bedard yanked himself from such a no-hitter in the making Saturday night. Now with the Houston Astros, Bedard has gone from a touted Baltimore comer to an injury-marred tour from the Orioles to the Seattle Mariners, from the Mariners to the Boston Red Sox, from the Red Sox to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and from the Pirates to the Astros.

Bedard's performance came about a week after Tim Lincecum, a San Francisco Giants pitcher with no significant injury history, but a staggering loss of effectiveness as a starter over the previous year and a half, threw 148 pitches to secure a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. And, a little over a year after Johan Santana, throwing 134 pitches, secured the first no-hitter in the New York Mets' franchise history.

Lincecum has a lack of injury history combined with a noted refusal to ice down after a game no matter how many innings worked or pitches thrown. Santana, alas, had knee (2008), elbow (2009), and shoulder (2010-11) surgery in his recent past ... and followed the no-hitter with an ankle sprain and lower back inflammation that ended his 2012 in late July. Not to mention the re-torn shoulder anterior capsule that's kept him out this year and may mean career over.

Whether Bedard did the right or the wise thing Saturday after pitch #109 may seem to depend upon whom you ask. His manager, Bo Porter, defends him. So does Seattle manager Eric Wedge. (”Bo did it the right way. If the guy says he's done, you can't leave him in there and put him in a position to fail. He didn't have a choice.”) But that's a pair of managers. Ask other pitchers and you get a slightly different consensus:

"It would be a tough one to take the ball from me. It's always hard to give up the ball and with a no-hitter it would be even crazier." — Bud Norris, a fellow Astros' starter

"If I hadn't given up a hit in a game, I would never take myself out — no matter what age or how bad or good I'm feeling. I don't think any pitcher would ever take themselves out of a no-hitter." — Ricky Nolasco, a freshly-minted Los Angeles Dodgers starter

"I wouldn't have done what he did. I would have done things different and I think a lot of people would have." — Joe Saunders, a Seattle starter

You understand the competitive impetus. And you also wonder whether Norris, Nolasco, and Saunders had observed Johan Santana's dilemma. Not to mention that of Mets manager Terry Collins. Collins agonized over his man's going the distance, knowing Santana likewise had a medical history described best as overactive. Santana pitched his jewel coming off a season-long absence to recuperate and rehabilitate from the same injury that now threatens his career.

"I've had three shoulder surgeries," Bedard told reporters after the game — which, tellingly, the Astros went on to lose despite surrendering a single hit to the Mariners all night long. "I'm not going over 110. I'd rather pitch a couple of more years than face another batter."

That isn't exactly Billy Loes, once a rather flaky Brooklyn Dodgers right-hander, who once claimed to lose a ground ball in the sun in Ebbets Field (don't laugh — it was possible, when the setting sun blasted through the spaces between the letters spelling E-B-B-E-T-S F-I-E-L-D under the roof behind the home plate-area seats) and proclaimed he strove not to be a 20-game winner because he'd be expected to do it every year.

But pitchers' competitiveness too often gets the better of them and leaves them in little position to compete if any after they finally go big and hard. Do you remember Steve Stone? Longtime broadcaster but once a serviceable major league pitcher. Ended up on the 1980 Orioles hell bent for a big year and got it: 25-7, including a 14-game winning streak, leading the American League in complete games and winning percentage as well as wins.

The next season: Gone. Finis. Cy Young to sayonara. Shoulder tendinitis. Stone piled up his big year overthrowing a pitch notorious for wreaking havoc on shoulders and elbows, the curve ball. He admitted he planned to throw more than 50 percent curve balls to go big trying to win a pennant. "I knew it would ruin my arm," he said, "but one year of 25-7 is worth five of 15-15." Lucky for Stone he had a broadcasting career (including long service as Harry Caray's partner/foil in Chicago) in his future.

Mark (The Bird) Fidrych, of blessed memory, was too impatient to get back to the mound after his first of several injuries, the year after he was a rookie knocking the American League on its ears. He ended up fraying his rotator cuff, though the injury wasn't diagnosed properly until he was just about finished—a mere few seasons after his supernova 1976.

On the other hand, teams' competitiveness often enough gets the better of them, to the point where they can't believe something just might be wrong with one of their mound marksmen — and learn the hard way. Just ask a very different organization of Astros in 1980, when nobody seemed to believe J.R. Richard's apparent shoulder fatigue was anything but a figment of the big, fierce-looking, sometimes moody thunderbolt's imagination.

After that year's All-Star Break, Richard suffered a stroke. He recovered, and appeared in a spring training game or two and some minor league games the next couple of years, but his reaction time had been compromised and the threat of future complications was acute enough to prevent him from pitching major league baseball again.

Around the same era, Craig Swan looked like a Met comer in the post-Tom Seaver period, until his rotator cuff betrayed him in 1980 and a freak rib fracture the following year kept him down again. He made a bright comeback in 1982 (he finished second to Hall of Famer Joe Morgan as the National League's Comeback Player of the Year), but he was foolish enough to pitch on despite feeling "something pop" in his shoulder in spring 1983. He was finished the following year.

Swan used his injury-compromised career to pursue further knowledge and became a qualified practitioner of what's called "rolfing," the Rolf Institute's techniques of soft tissue manipulation and "movement education" to enable muscles and tendons to work together even if they're opposing portions of the same body parts. Who knows whether Swan and Fidrych both might have benefitted if the techniques had been available during their pitching careers?

Sandy Koufax became a medical guinea pig in a bid to continue pitching following the coming-out of his pitching elbow arthritis in late 1964. He also went from being the greatest pitcher on the planet as it was to someone from about ten dimensions beyond. Then, the insanity of it all on behalf of continuing to do something that might cripple him compelled his retirement at 30 and beyond the top of his profession.

Before he called it a career, Koufax pointed toward rotation mate and fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale and told a reporter quietly, "He'd retire now if he could." Drysdale by 1965-66 was suffering knee troubles. In May 1969, a season after smashing a long-standing consecutive shutout inning streak, Drysdale's rotator cuff gave out on him, at a time when corrective surgery wasn't available.

Jim Palmer went to the Hall of Fame after a sterling pitching career that was too often flecked with charges that the Oriole right-hander (who'd beaten Koufax in a World Series game as a 1966 rookie, abetted by three horrific errors from Dodger center fielder Willie Davis) was a chronic hypochondriac. Traceable to the period between his fine rookie 1966 and his re-emergence in 1969 — after two years in the Oriole system trying to re-horse following arm troubles and surgery. Exacerbated when the only thing stopping his eight 20-win seasons was elbow trouble in 1974.

Palmer became so self-conscious of his physical health that his manager, Earl Weaver, with whom he fashioned a classic love-hate relationship, once snorted, "The Chinese tell time by the Year of the Dragon, the Year of the Horse. I tell time by the Year of the Shoulder, the Year of the Elbow, the Year of the Ulnar Nerve." A man with a taste for serious literature, Palmer was spotted reading Dr. Zhivago on a team flight. "It must be about an elbow specialist," cracked Stone — before he got his own come-uppance.

Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post bellwether, who once wrote about Palmer with a striking balance between critique and appraisal ("Palmer vs. Palmer"), would finally come to wonder aloud, "Could it be Jim Palmer was smart to nurse injuries, and Tom Seaver to insist on four days' rest and never have a 300-inning season?"

Palmer was a pitcher who worked as hard at perfecting his craft as he did in maintaining order and control in a life that was (and still might be) a whirlpool of activity for a guy who couldn't sit still long enough even to enjoy The Tonight Show past a Johnny Carson monologue, by his own admission. When the Orioles finally tore the uniform off his back — you could say he was pinked after winning a measly 268 games — that too self-aware, too-sensitive fellow wept before high-tailing it out of Memorial Stadium.

And you may yet remember the Oakland Athletics' starting rotation of 1980-83. "The Five Aces," Sports Illustrated ballyhooed one and all of them. And one and all of them—Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Matt Keough, Rick Langford, Brian Kingman — were gone within just a few years with various and sundry arm or shoulder troubles, often blamed on manager Billy Martin's inability to see the future for the present and keep from overworking the quintet. Said McCatty in retrospect:

"Billy didn't ruin our arms. Our own competitiveness did it. We wouldn't take ourselves out. I know what I should have done when my arm started hurting. ‘Tomorrow it'll be fine,' I'd say. So I paid the price. 1982 and '83 were the most miserable years I've ever been a part of. I pitched when it felt like my arm was going to come right out of the socket ... I still don't know why I got the soreness, but I was really the first to go down. Then it was like dominoes ... The reason we stayed in so long was that we were throwing well and Billy didn't have much confidence in the bullpen ... Billy called most of our pitches. We'd always have to look in the dugout for the sign. It became an involuntary action ... The worst of it is, with the pitching staff the critics were right. We did go down. But they were right for all the wrong reasons. I know that with me I was just too dumb to say, ‘Hey, I've got pain. Better rest me.'"

McCatty is now the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals. He was in on it when the Nats decided Stephen Strasburg wasn't going to be overworked in his first year back from Tommy John surgery. The debate over the Nats' wisdom was fierce. Especially when they missed going to the National League Championship Series by a tick last fall after the bullpen finally gave out. The Nats are struggling this season, but it isn't Strasburg's fault. He may have only a 5-7 won-lost record at this writing but he's also got a 2.97 ERA, a 3.03/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 9.0 strikeout-per-nine rate, and fourteen quality starts out of nineteen.

Fifty years to the day before Strasburg was shut down for the season last year, a Washington Senators pitcher named Tom Cheney went 16 innings with 21 punchouts to beat the Orioles, largely with curve balls. Already having had a career marked by great stuff and great inability to control it, Cheney was finished within a couple of years.

Lots of pitchers know their limits, lots of pitchers don't. Lots of pitchers can pitch without end, lots of pitchers can't. A year after Cheney's fateful gem, Juan Marichal tangled with Warren Spahn — a man old enough to be Marichal's father — for 16 innings. (Willie Mays won it with a home run in the sixteenth.) Marichal didn't get done in for a little over a decade, and then only when his back finally gave out after a bad reaction to a penicillin shot and years of those twist-and-shout multiple windups finally took a toll. There's probably no single book any longer on just what a given pitcher can give or take. And any manager who thinks there is is a manager who won't be employable for very long.

Erik Bedard just might be a pitcher who's smart enough and experienced enough to know his limits, even if he did learn them by attrition. It doesn't — shouldn't — make him seem any less a competitor. If it makes him feel any better, he should know that even Hall of Famers know their limits, act upon them, and nobody but a damned fool would call them less than men anymore.

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