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There’s been more talk than ever this still young season about the runaway injury factor in baseball. Like, if you can stay healthy you have a chance no matter how flawed your team may be. While on the other hand, you can never have too much pitching, never be too deep.
Actually, the chagrin over injuries -- both real and imagined -- has been mounting steadily over the last decade. Records for Disabled List (DL) appearances, man-games lost, salary expended on players unable to play, replacement player costs, etc., ad nauseam are being set every season. The curve runs straight upwards and has -- not so oddly in the opinion of many -- escalated in step with the upward march of salaries.
The impact is huge and it mainly has to do with minor stuff. Mind you, the big orthopedic problems -- broken legs, blown knees, maimed elbows, and rotator cuffs that don’t rotate anymore -- are not the issue. They have been with us forever and are clear and indisputable matters. Every team experiences them; always has and always will. Only an idiot would make an issue of such issues. The player has a major injury. He can’t comb his hair let alone toss a baseball. The player can’t play. It’s as simple as that.
Where there are questions and developing controversy is in the area of the smaller stuff. It’s the relatively minor and often imprecise aches, pops, blips and twinges having to do with hamstrings and quads and balky backs and sore shoulders and even aching obliques and suspected concussions that account for the vast majority of the disabled list appearances. And that is what increasingly muddles the discussion. Because these injuries have skyrocketed over the last decade while piercing the stratosphere in the last three seasons. Nor is there an end in sight.
Understand that this is not a minor matter. Earlier this season, the Yankees had a “total annual salary” lavishing on the disabled list that exceeded the entire payroll of half the other teams in major league baseball. Obviously the maladies that, at the time, were sidetracking Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and the eternally wounded Carl Pavano accounted for much of this ostensibly ludicrous situation. All by himself, Pavano would sink a battleship, which he has effectively proven in his four seasons tethered to New York.
But before you get too high on your high horse, realize that when the Red Sox phenom from Japan, Diasuke Matsuzaka, landed on the DL with shoulder problems a week or so ago, he also was freezing on the debit side a Red Sox salary commitment that was equal to half the payroll of the Florida Marlins who at the time, unlike the Red Sox, were in first place in their division.
It’s only early June, but you could form a heckuva an all-star team out of the lads who have already graced the disabled list in this still very young season. How about this for a 25-man roster of those who’ve been beached for at least 15 days this season.
A-Rod, Jorge Posada, Philip Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Travis Haffner, Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Rocco Baldelli, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, Nick Johnson, Dontrelle Willis, Paul LoDuca, Scott Kazmir, David Eckstein, Vernon Welles, Scott Rolen, Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Millwood, Gary Sheffield. To which you can presently add three of your local pets, Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling and the once seemingly indestructible, David Ortiz. There are many more to choose from, of course, but this group will stand as our 25-man “all-star” roster of this year’s lame, halt and disabled.
Specific reasons rooted in cold facts are hard to come by. But there is no end to the theories. Some believe modern baseball players bulk up too much, train too hard, and concentrate too much on getting mightier; whereas this game far more emphasizes the graceful and nimble movements that favor agility and dexterity over raw physical strength. That’s an interesting point, and one that was becoming an acute concern during the steroid era. One assumes with the discrediting of that dark period in baseball history the obsession with bodybuilding will fade.
An even more popular theory -- especially with the game’s crusty old guard -- is the familiar notion that the modern player is twisted by agents, spoiled by enablers, babied by skittish general managers, excessively indulged by owners, and coddled to pathetic extremes by support personnel. In other words, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Old-timers mock “pitch counts” and sneer at players who sit out with “bruises,” and decline to trust a player who seems too eager to beg out of the lineup and have no time for any alleged disabling injuries that have to do with mere ‘‘headaches.’’
That old macho mentality is colorful but it has its obvious flaws. We understand nowadays that a concussion is no “mere headache.” The custom of obliging a kid to “play through pain” to prove his worthiness is properly rejected in the modern game for being not only barbaric but counter-productive. The operative credo now recognizes that when it hurts you should sit, thus avoiding still more time on the disabled list. Ah, but the tolerance of pain is relative, is it not?
Nor does any of this mean the old-timers are full of childish nostalgia. Regarding only the most controversial of the modern concepts, there remains absolutely no proof that “pitch counts” -- which are now so widely and strenuously enforced -- save pitching arms. It is little more than widespread supposition that supports the pitch-count policy and that has little scientific merit. Pitching is a mess in baseball. Pitchers are dropping like proverbial flies. Tommy John surgery, involving complicated tendon transplants, has become a cottage industry. All of this despite the fact that the training, coaching, and conditioning techniques have never been so sophisticated. Something is awry. It’s reasonable to suspect that maybe the new attitudes about the craft are less than infallible. But then that argument also doesn’t have much scientific merit. Maybe there are no good explanations.
Were the players back in the good old days tougher than today’s guys? But of course! They were post-immigrant stock; hungrier, more driven, and more desperate. Americans of all walks of life were tougher back then, between the turn of the 20th century and the heyday of the Greatest Generation. On the other hand, it would be interesting to know how many promising baseball careers were shortened or even ruined outright by a witless and primitive custom that obliged players to treat injury with disdain by spitting a little tobacco juice on the wound and bearing on with stiff upper lip.
And yet this matter ought not be lightly dismissed on the grounds that it is simply a sign of progress. The statistics -- spiraling upward every season -- have become staggering. In April, both the Yankees and Rangers landed nine players on the 15 day DL while the Mets finished second in this bizarre sweepstakes with seven DL’s. In that single month -- the very first of the season when the players theoretically ought not to have been too worn down -- 178 players got posted on the Disabled List. That’s an average of almost six per team. Astounding!
With my own morbid curiosity on the matter also mounting I closely monitored the last week in May tracking every reported addition to the DL (and they are posted daily in the small print of your sports section). I came up with a total of 34 players. In one bloody week (May 25-31). The list features notable names and fat contracts: Troy Percival, Frank Thomas, Mark Kotsay, Eric Byrnes, Joel Piniero, Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Willie Taveras, Fausto Carmono, Gary Sheffield, Greg Zahn, Travis Hafner, Luke Hudson, Hank Blalock, Eric Gagne, Jose Valentine, Moises Alou, Jason Werth, Adam Everett, Juan Uribe, Austin Kearns, Jason Jennings, Connor Jackson, Shawn Estes, Rich Aurilia.
That’s in just one randomly selected week!
Something is awry.