There’s plenty unfair about veiling player injuries

Bryce Harper

Bad enough: Bryce Harper—here about to be nose-coned by a Genesis Cabrera fastball—suffered a wrist injury on this pitch that sapped him at the plate in May. Worse: his manager Joe Girardi still thinks it’s fine to lie about player injuries.

Phillies manager Joe Girardi says sharing injury information with the press is “somewhat unfair to us.” It’s not exactly fair to a lot of people, especially the injured player(s). Especially with this season’s injuries seeming to come in multiples, which too many observers feared possible, if not likely, after last year’s pan-damn-ically inspired short, irregular season.

Last Tuesday, Bryce Harper was finally put on the injured list with a wrist injury. His manager was forced to admit he’d lied previously about Harper’s actual condition, saying he gave Harper last Sunday off, maybe to help the right fielder start shaking a slump away.

Never mind for the moment that the Phillies have real player depth problems. The Athletic‘s Matt Gelb isolates a more severe problem: “There might be a larger issue when it reaches this point: The Phillies would rather engage in subterfuge to trick the opposing manager than play with an actual full roster.”

You might recall Harper taking a hard and fast Genesis Cabrera pitch off his nose onto his left wrist leading off the sixth in St. Louis near April’s end. At that moment, between Harper getting dropped and followup Phillies batter Didi Grigorius taking the next pitch off his ribs, the outrage was over both Phillies being injured with those pitches and the abject stupidity of the three-batter minimum rule for relief pitchers.

The rule denied Cardinals manager Mike Schildt the option of getting Cabrera the hell out of there on a night he clearly lacked control of his bullets. The umpires’ refusal to eject Cabrera after Grigorius got drilled outraged the normally mild-mannered Girardi enough to get himself the ho-heave after making a pantomime of ejecting Cabrera himself following the umpire warnings.

But something was clearly wrong with Harper in the month to follow. His April finished with a 1.063 OPS (.448 on-base percentage; .615 slugging percentage). Now his May finishes with a 179-point OPS drop, to .884. His on-base percentage dropped 53 points; his slugging percentage, 126 points. He went from 48 total bases the season’s first month to 13 in May.

The Phillies may have had depth problems most of the season so far, but someone in that organisation should have seen something wrong with Harper. The lefthanded-swinging right fielder was clearly unable since the Cabrera drill to hit hard when making contact, and enemy pitchers figured it out early enough to keep pounding him with fastballs. He should have been send to the injured list far sooner than now.

But no. And Girardi thinks just keeping his mouth shut about who’s hurt where and how badly is going to help? If the other guys’ pitchers figured Harper’s swing was weakened and exploited him accordingly, does Girardi really think he’s doing Harper or anyone else on his team any favours by not talking up?

“There is a distinct advantage to the other manager if I tell you a guy’s wrist is hurt,” Girardi said last Tuesday, after the Phillies finally had to surrender and send Harper to the injured list.

And the idea here is to win games . . . I understand you want to know. But there are distinct advantages that I can give another club if they know everything that’s going on over here. So I’m sorry that I had to do that. But we’re trying to win games, and he’s just not ready to go. I thought he’d be ready on Monday or Tuesday. He’s not.

News flash: The other guys already know who doesn’t look right. Especially if he has an injury history the way Harper does.

Marlins manager Don Mattingly, whose team hadn’t faced the Phillies in April but did so twice this month, figured it out immediately last Sunday, when he saw Harper on the Phillies bench last Sunday wearing a red pullover shirt but not his Phillies uniform top. Mattingly and his Marlins knew Harper wasn’t going to play before Girardi finally had to quit lying his way around the issue.

Harper still has his career-long critics, of course, but even they acknowledge (however begrudgingly) that he hates to sit a game out unless he absolutely must. Baseball men “know to never read too much into Girardi’s words because he was notorious for less-than-truthful injury updates when he managed in New York,” Gelb observed.

Then Harper told Girardi last Sunday morning the wrist still wasn’t right. Come Monday, Girardi fed the press a line about merely deciding Sunday night he’d give Harper an extra day off.

Sure, Joe. Let Joe and Jane Fan think all he needs is an extra day’s rest. Let them think they haven’t seen what their own eyes tell them. Let them think the man’s just slumping. Let them think he’s just struggling as he’s done at times in the past.

Anything except letting the other guys think what they already know because they’ve been in the game long enough to know better. The hell with your guy’s reputation or health. Even if he should have been sent to the injured list and the real doctors long before he finally was. It’s going to do your team how much good now?

It’s not that Joe and Jane Fan always know when a player struggles because his health compels the struggle. They see such a player—whether a replacement-level player or a $300 million dollar gigastar—and assume without knowledge that the man is either having a slump or exposing himself as the overrated bum they always knew him to be.

It gets even better when Joe and Jane start rhapsodising about the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game. When ballplayers were invariably warriors, real men who played through broken limbs or even tuberculosis. Joe and Jane don’t like to be reminded that in the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game players had so few choices about things in general and baseball medicine, such as it was, in particular, that baseball medicine could have been hauled before the boards to answer for downright malpractise.

Red Schoendienst

Everyone in the league knew something was wrong with Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst in 1958—then he was diagnosed as having played the year with tuberculosis. Fat lot of good that did him or his Braves.

Even today, you can find a player who finds as much reason to trust his team medical staff about as far as he could throw a subway train, then goes to a more reliable doctor—and gets himself into hot water with the team. It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

Did I say tuberculosis? Joe and Jane love reading about the “guts” it took 35-year-old Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst to play 106 games in 1958—including stretching a double into a triple on the basepaths during the World Series—despite everyone in the National League including his own team knowing something was badly wrong with the ten-time All-Star, who knew what?

Yankee Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle remembered Schoendienst being exhausted beyond normality after pulling up at third on that hit. Diagnosis after the season: tuberculosis. Missed practically the entire 1959 season. His Braves lost that Series to the Yankees, then lost the 1959 pennant in a playoff against the Dodgers.

Mantle spoke of Schoendienst in his 1964 book (with Babe Ruth/Casey Stengel biographer Robert W. Creamer) The Quality of Courage. Exactly what good did it do his team or himself that Schoendienst “courageously” played through a disease that could have killed him, infected others, and then missed most of the following year?

A player who earned his living as much with his second base defense as his bat, Schoendienst was never the same player again. He hung around for portions of four more seasons before becoming a successful manager, and even his second base abilities drained away before he called it a playing career.

It’s not that Joe and Jane Fan share a particularly acute or enduring memory today, either. They spent more time bemoaning the Jacoby Ellsbury contract with the Yankees for his protracted absences than they did bemoaning the fact that Ellsbury spent so much time in drydock because of assorted injuries he’d actually incurred, you know, playing the game. (Did I mention the manager when Ellsbury first joined the Yankees was Joe Girardi?)

They also tended to forget that teams carry particularised insurance covering those big contracts in the event of injuries. They’d rather carp about such players “stealing” money from their teams as if they went out with premeditation and malice aforethought to get injured during games.

The biggest idiots among the fans still think Albert Pujols “stole” millions from the Angels, rather than stopping to think the reason Pujols dropped so far off the table in the first place was his lower body health, only starting with a frightening recurrence of plantar fasciitis after his first Angels season.

It doesn’t take much to leave a player anything but the player he was until that one particular injury, either. Especially when he’s still only 28 years old. Playing through a wrist injury did Harper no favours at all. In April: he swung and missed 26 percent of the pitches he saw in the strike zone and still posted that 1.063 OPS for the month. After the Cabrera drilling: he swung and missed at 37 percent of what he saw in the zone—and his OPS cratered.

“Beyond the simple fact that no Girardi updates for the remainder of his time as Phillies manager can be taken at face value,” Gelb writes, “there have to be real questions about Harper. Is there more than a sore wrist at play here?”

If there isn’t, it shouldn’t be a shock, either. A single injury can and too often does send a player from the Hall of Fame track to the wrong side of the track. It’s bad enough Joe and Jane Fan couldn’t care less. It’s worse when his own manager thinks the solution includes lying through his teeth about it.

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