Monday, September 1, 2014
Baseball may be the thinking person's sport, but it still seems often enough that it's populated by people for whom thinking is only slightly less dangerous than trying to sneak one past Mike Trout or taking Felix Hernandez over the fence. Especially when it comes to injuries, their proper recuperation and rehabilitation time, and possibly their very presence.
It's one thing for a team in or knocking on the door of a pennant race to nudge a key wounded warrior back to the field as soon as reasonably possible. It's something else again for a team whose season has (or should be) blown up to push it. Consider the Rangers and the Mets, a pair of teams going nowhere this year whose eyes should be upon the next few.
The word out of Arlington is that, not only have they lost Shin-soo Choo for the season, but the pressure is on Yu Darvish to get back on the mound as close to yesterday as possible. The word out of New York is that a related pressure curls around David Wright. And the word out of Cincinnati is that Homer Bailey is on the threshold of being shut down for the season.
The Rangers at this writing have baseball's worst record. The Mets are ten games better and not quite in the National League East sewer. The Reds hung in the NL Central race until a couple of injuries too many and a none-too-glittering jacket on the road sent them at this writing to eight and a half out of first place and six out of the wild card hunt.
Now, why on earth is Rangers manager Ron Washington itching to get Darvish back on the mound when an MRI has revealed elbow inflammation and when that kind of revelation often as not telegraphs something far more grave if not handled properly?
Why on earth are the Mets not telling Wright there's little glory to be had playing through neck and shoulder pain for a fourth-place team with no chance of even sneaking into the postseason, a team that needs to have every healthy duck in the swamp for 2015 and beyond? Even if he's the face of the franchise now and for the foreseeable future?
And who do the Reds think they are showing the common sense shown by medical director Tim Kremchek, who says Bailey's itching to get back out there but the club has to think not of the next four weeks but of the next few seasons?
Washington isn't in an incomprehensible position, of course. Not with the equivalent of $71 million worth of 2014 Rangers' payroll on the disabled list. But as Yahoo Sports's Jeff Passan observes, "Were Washington inclined to ask, he might learn that one of the greatest causes of catastrophic arm injuries is returning too quickly from lesser ones. Even the slightest tweak of mechanics to make up for the most minute pain can cause a pitcher's rhythm to fall apart, which forces more adjustments, which leads to undue stress on the elbow or shoulder."
Asked about Darvish's recovery time, the manager was foolish enough to tell a radio show, "So he's got inflammation? I've got inflammation." Washington had to backpedal almost on a dime, apologizing for the remark in a subsequent radio interview, but following up with how he wants Darvish back so "he doesn't quit on teammates, that's all there is [to it]."
Brilliant. With the Rangers lining up for a possible number one draft pick next summer, the manager — usually renowned as a player's manager — sends the possible message that Arlington isn't necessarily the smartest place to be if you should get hurt, because you'll be pushed to return sooner than you should and possibly have your career blown up in your face.
Wright won't name it as a specific culprit, but anyone knowing anything knows his balky shoulder, which began this year on a hard slide causing a rotator cuff bruising, has had an effect on his power swing. One minute he won't blame his lost season on it, the next he admits it'll take the entire off season for the shoulder to recover properly. And if you take general manager Sandy Alderson's word for it, nobody in authority on the Mets is moving too quickly to convince Wright to take a powder for the rest of the season.
Never mind that he's the franchise face. Never mind that, at 31, he still has seasons to go before he sleeps. Never mind that the Mets need the healthiest Wright possible to return to proper, sustained competitiveness. You'd think a franchise riddled with injury-compromised history (do such names as Gary Gentry, John Stearns, Craig Swan, Dwight Gooden, Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson, Ryan Church, Jose Reyes, Jason Bay, and Johan Santana come back to you?) would smarten up about player recovery.
The Reds have a comparable history. (Jim Maloney, Mel Queen, Gary Nolan, Chris Sabo, Rob Dibble, Ken Griffey, Jr. sound familiar?) They didn't get shoved out of this year's races purely because of injuries; their bullpen had a lot to do with that and their offense didn't help much when most needed. But Jay Bruce isn't recovered fully from knee surgery, and Joey Votto's knee and quad trouble has limited him to 62 games, and he, too, could be shut down for the season to recover properly. Talking about Votto's recovery and Bailey's needed recovery, and with a September comeback not necessarily in the wind, the Reds are talking as smart as the Rangers and the Mets need to talk.
Even a contender or two has a problem on its hand regarding an injured producer. The Tigers have slipped from the likely American League Central ogres to barely hanging in the wild card hunt. But Miguel Cabrera has been playing on balky ankles in a season that follows the one in which his abdominal issues rendered him almost an afterthought in last fall's postseason exit just short of a World Series. And Anibal Sanchez could be lost for the rest of the season thanks to a pectoral muscle strain aggravated when he might have torn scar tissue on the muscle while playing long-toss this week.
The Yankees have managed to hang in the hunt despite enough injuries to populate an emergency room thesis. But Masahiro Tanaka went down with a partially-torn ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing arm in early July, after knocking the league on its ear through 9 July. (12-4, 2.51 ERA, 1.01 WHIP.) He's just begun a throwing program and hopes (as do the Yankees) to be on the mound again in September. If by some unforeseen happenstance the Yankees back into the postseason, it's an open question whether a partially healthy Tanaka will hurt or help, considering the proper recovery for injuries of that sort.
Washington thinks he knows inflammation? Bad enough you'd be afraid of him managing various players who looked like extraterrestrial talents but who bulled their ways into careers that fell too short of what their talents suggested while doing their teams no favors. Worse is how you should be afraid of him managing those who know what injury mismanagement can do to shorten them and hurt their teams.
Try to imagine Washington managing Jim Palmer, a Hall of Fame pitcher who learned the hard way, and much too soon, what happens when an honest-to-God injury clashes with what Passan calls the "macho baseball culture" that orders you back on the mound just about as soon as you can move your arm and decides about 90 percent of your real injuries are located in your brain.
Palmer couldn't have asked for a better rookie splash: he out-lasted Sandy Koufax in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, on an afternoon ruined when Willie Davis's three errors in a single inning put Koufax into an unearned hole and the game out of reach, en route a stupefying Orioles sweep. Palmer was twenty years old and the youngest to toss a World Series shutout.
But he couldn't have asked for a worse postscript. The following season, his elbow blew out after nine starts and an early 2.94 ERA. Over two years in the minors, Palmer struggled to recuperate and dealt with an Oriole organization insisting it was all between his ears. Who knows how deeply that cut into Palmer's psyche? From the moment he returned in 1969, he spent the rest of his career driving his own organization crazy with Hall of Fame pitching and Hall of Fame hypochondria.
The slightest discomfort, the merest hint of a physical malady, sent Palmer scurrying to assorted medical specialists and drove him to care for any injuries to what some thought was excess. They called this basically decent man who strained to be seen as normal behind his striking achievement and seeming perfectionism a narcissistic prima donna and even a quitter. They didn't get what Thomas Boswell concluded: "Palmer is, of course, just as tangled up, as human, as everybody else — and he knows it ... When Palmer pleads that he's misunderstood, he means people don't understand that despite his wealth-looks-talent-fame, he finds life just as troubling as anybody else." (Emphasis in the original.) Life, and baseball.
Yet Palmer factored large in eight Baltimore postseasons and three World Series rings — and led the American League in innings pitched four times while averaging 249 innings a season for his career. He became a first ballot Hall of Famer with only three of his top 10 pitching comps not Hall of Famers. (His top four comps, in descending order: Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Juan Marichal, and Lefty Grove.)
"Could it be," Boswell would ask, two years after Palmer's retirement, pondering the roll of pitchers who'd hit the heights and then been done in by injuries right afterward, "that Jim Palmer was smart to nurse injuries?" Nineteen seasons, three Cy Young Awards, three World Series rings (one each in three decades; Palmer's the only pitcher to accomplish that one), one season as one of four 20-game winners in the season's rotation (Palmer's the last surviving member of that rotation, by the way), and a plaque in Cooperstown, say "Yes."
Nobody wants to be seen as a quitter, but too many want too many to play despite their bodies threatening to quit on them, possibly permanently. Taking one for the team too often leaves the team taking a few too many in return.
Wasn't that the big reason why the Nationals sacked Rob Dibble from their broadcast team, after Dibble zapped Stephen Strasburg for sitting one out with an injury? "Suck it up, kid. You can't have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow." Shortly afterward: turned out Strasburg would need Tommy John surgery. Showing how little Dibble learned from his own pitching career, when he missed two seasons with arm surgery and was forced to retire after an eight-season career.
Too many injuries blew up the Rangers' season before it really kicked into gear. They don't need to butt heads with their own manager over the care, feeding, and future of their best pitcher.
If Ron Washington wants Yu Darvish to last long and well, considering Darvish's outsize talent, not to mention wanting next year's draft prospects thinking kindly upon casting their lots with the Rangers; or, if the Mets want David Wright to play out his contract with season after season of competitive leadership; then, they'll do what the Reds look to be doing with Homer Bailey and other teams whose brains overrule their machismo tend to do when there's little left to play for other than spoiling or reviewing the roster and planning for next year.
They'll do what the Orioles once couldn't do and what Jim Palmer forced them to think about. They'll forget about the next four weeks and try thinking about the next four seasons and maybe more. They'll knock it off with the macho act and remember these players are human beings first and baseball machines second.