Once again: Injuries are not character flaws

Albert Pujols, Mike Trout

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols—some idiots call Trout a “puss” and others called Pujols a “thief” . . . for the heinous crimes of being injured on the field.

Sometimes it seems as though when a player is injured in the line of duty, he or she becomes a kind of criminal in Joe and Jane Fan’s eyes. Far as they’re concerned, such players are any one of a number of unflattering things. Especially when an injury keeps them out of action for more than, say, a week or two.

It’s as if injury belongs with defeat among moral shortcomings and aren’t covered by simple, irrefutable laws of sports. In a game, somebody has to lose. On the field, someone’s liable to be injured. They’re plain facts of life. They don’t expose the defeated as degenerates or the injured as gutless.

I’ve been steaming over it ever since I saw one social media snit dismissing Mike Trout, who’s dealt with season-disrupting/ending injuries the past couple of full seasons, as “a puss.” Last year, a torn calf muscle incurred running the bases put paid to his season after 36 games.

You’d think that with everything we’ve long since learned we’d quit condemning the wounded as weenies because they were just so much “tougher” in the Good Old Days. News flash: The good old days weren’t so good when it came to athletes’ health. And the next time you look at the numbers of careers you think should have lasted longer or been better than brief flashes of brilliance, stop to think about those players’ injury histories.

They used to say Roger Maris merely proved himself a lamer because he never again had a career spell such as 1960-62. They said the pressure of that 61-homer 1961 took him down. Those people forget that a series of injuries beginning in ’62 began sapping Maris’s formidable power and reducing him to journeyman level by 1965.

The Yankees falling into a lost decade of 1965-75 needed as much box office power as they could still wring out of ancient (and very often injured) Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Maris. They even forget that that generation of Yankee movers kept the true seriousness of a wrist injury from Maris unconscionably, in order to keep him on the field—at the time the Yankees collapsed due to age on the field and parching in the farm system.

Gene Mauch and Leo Durocher were known to denounce the injured as quitters. Between that and foolish trades, no wonder the post-1964 Phillies wouldn’t be competitive again for almost a decade to come. No wonder the 1969 Cubs were too spent down the stretch to keep up with the surging Mets and take back the National League East that first looked like those Cubs’ for the taking.

They used to call Jim Palmer anything from a prima donna to a hypochondriac when the slightest hint of an injury sent him shuddering over the prospect that his pitching career was over. It came from mishandling an injury he incurred after his rookie splash and out-lasting arthritis-addled, overmedicated Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in Game Two of the 1966 World Series. Well, now.

Maybe Palmer was onto something after all, no matter how exasperated Earl Weaver and his teammates got with his health concerns—which was plentiful enough, no matter how much they liked him as a person. That’s Palmer reposing in the Hall of Fame as one of the absolute best pitchers of his generation and with three World Series rings to show for it, too.

Forget about the idiot dismissing Trout—who’d be a Hall of Famer and the fifth-best all-around center fielder ever to play the game if his career ended this instant—as a puss. Think of all the idiots who believe to this day that Albert Pujols “stole” that $240 million he earned as an Angel . . . and forget that his lower body, particularly a plantar fasciitis-addled heel and numerous other leg injuries was the real reason he collapsed after a respectable first season in Anaheim.

Ill-fated Jacoby Ellsbury’s reasons for not even thinking about re-signing with the Red Sox when he hit free agency included whispers that he took “too long” to recover from injuries his full-out playing style incurred. He signed big with the Yankees—and the injury parade continued apace, right down to his missing 2018 with a torn labrum and 2019 with foot and shoulder injuries.

It was hell if you do and hell if you don’t for Ellsbury. Return too soon from any injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough for teammates’ or managements’ or fans’ tastes, and you risk exactly what Ellsbury put up with, unfairly and unconsionably, a reputation as a fragile goldbrick.

The late Mark (The Bird) Fidrych tried too many premature returns from injuries and re-injuries after his sensational rookie 1976. Career in the toilet and done swiftly enough. Still think he merely “disappeared?”

Often as not the teams themselves don’t help. Last year, Phillies manager Joe Girardi said it was perfectly acceptable to keep injury information out of the press. He was thinking of keeping the other manager from getting a little advantage, but he forgot that a) opposition managers tend to know when an opponent is hurting; and, b) Joe and Jane Fan are ignorant enough about injured players without being lied to even further while they’re lying to themselves.

Basketball people have spent all this season listening to whispers-to-screams denunciations of Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons, missing an entire season because of back trouble. Most of them didn’t want to hear it. He backed out of the fourth game of the Nets’ playoff round against the Boston Celtics with his back still bothering him.

The talking heads went nuclear; some of them called Simmons the same kind of thief that people called Pujols the Angel. Even ex-NBA supermen like Shaquille O’Neal called backing out of the game “a punk move.” That “punk move” turned into back surgery Simmons underwent Thursday.

“The notion that Simmons was faking it, that he was just scared to play in the game because the Nets were down in the series, made no sense,” wrote a furious Deadspin writer named Rob Parker. “And the back is a tricky thing to put a handle on. A back issue could be so bad that a person can’t even tie their shoe, let alone play basketball on the NBA level.”

Reminder: Injuries on the field aren’t the same thing as chasing Jill St. John down a ski slope and turning your knee into bone meal (Jim Lonborg), doing a slam-dunk move and catching your ring in an awning mechanism to shred your hand ligaments apart (Cecil Upshaw), staying too long without the sun screen on a tanning bed (Marty Cordova), or dozing off with an ice bag on your foot to incure frostbite—in August. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.)

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again and again if need be. Big money contracts don’t immunise you from the same injuries to which merely mortal players can be susceptible. Nine figures don’t turn Clark Kent into Superman. They also don’t heal a player in ten minutes or less. Anyone who doesn’t get that should never be taken seriously as a fan, a coach or manager, or a professional analyst.

Unless a player was injured doing something stupid off the field, or you have heretofore undetected deep medical knowledge, you have only one recourse whenever a player—from the most modest bench player to the most obvious Hall of Famer in waiting—is injured in the actual line of duty.

That recourse is to shut the hell up and stop treating real sports injuries as evidence of fragility or cowardice. Because the only one resembling a fragile coward in my eyes when you dismiss this injured player as a puss or that injured player as a goldbrick is you.

The pangs of the Yankee reaper

2019-11-21 JacobyEllsburyRundown

Jacoby Ellsbury (2), here Houdini-ing a rundown in the 2013 World Series, before the injuries finally started sapping the talent. (SBNation gif.)

Things got this bad for Jacoby Ellsbury: when he announced his daughter’s birth on the Fourth of July, on Instagram, he got hammered by Yankee fans indignant over the big contract to the too-often-injured outfielder. Well, nobody said Joe and Jane Fan were immunised completely against the stupid virus.

Such Yankee fans can breathe now. Ellsbury is still the first of Navajo descent (courtesy of his mother) to play major league baseball, but  he isn’t a Yankee anymore. The Yankees finally decided to cut him loose and eat the remaining $26 million Ellsbury’s owed on his original seven-year, $153 million deal. Contrary to what too-popular belief still says, neither side is to blame for Ellsbury’s none-too-fantastic voyage.

What does it do to a man to know that not only could he not perform his duties at his line of work because his body kept telling him “not so fast, dude,” but that people observing his particular company made him a hate object for no crime worse than the injuries he incurred on the job?

It’s as if being injured on the job at all equals a character flaw, especially if you happen to be paid a phenomenally handsome salary. On the flip side, it’s as if being paid a phenomenally handsome salary equals some sort of immunity to earthly harm. Here’s a bulletin for you: Handing Clark Kent a nine-figure payday doesn’t make him Superman.

And one of the reasons Ellsbury wouldn’t even think about listening to the Red Sox about staying in the family when he reached free agency after the 2013 World Series conquest was because he was alienated in the clubhouse after he heard one too many whisperings that he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to get back on the field after previous injuries.

It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t for a professional athlete. Return too soon from an injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough (in whose medical opinion?) and you risk being dismissed as a fragile goldbrick.

The 2019 Yankees were so injury riddled that it was easy to joke that their yearbook was probably The New England Journal of Medicine, but Ellsbury was probably one Yankee who wasn’t laughing. Not even like Figaro that he might not weep. He’d been so often injured for so long that he might be tempted to name his memoir, should he write one, The Pangs of the Yankee Reaper.

Sooner or later, too, you suspected injuries would sap Ellsbury’s baseball talents even before he became a Yankee. Red Sox Nation at least had the pleasures of Ellsbury’s talents helping them noticeably enough to a pair of World Series rings including in his rookie season. Including but not limited to his magnificent Game Six rundown dodge in the 2013 Series.

Maybe that’s why Yankee fans showed as much empathy for his on-the-job slings, arrows, and whatever other medicals he had to bear as the empathy a barracuda shows for its prey. But now, let me count the ways Ellsbury didn’t get injured on the job.

He didn’t get a bite in the ass sliding into second thanks to having left the false teeth he doesn’t have in his back pocket. (An otherwise nondescript pitcher, Clarence Bethen, thought of that in 1923.)

He didn’t turn his knee into bone meal chasing Jill St. John down the ski slopes. (Freshly-crowned Cy Young Award winner and chairman of baseball’s Future Dentists of America, Jim Lonborg, was rumoured to have done just that when he tore his knee apart in a winter skiing accident after the 1967 season.)

He didn’t get the brilliant idea to demonstrate his slam-dunk technique on a storefront awning, catch his ring in the mechanism, and cost himself a season with shredded hand ligaments for his trouble. (Braves relief pitcher Cecil Upshaw slam dunked his way out of the 1970 season that way.)

He didn’t adopt an exercise routine that included running backwards and thus running into a gopher hole causing himself a back injury. (Pitcher Jamie Easterly did, however, in the 1980s.)

He didn’t break a toe running from his kitchen back to his living room because he couldn’t bear to miss watching a buddy at the plate on television. (Hall of Famer George Brett was so desperate not to miss a Bill Buckner at-bat that he ran from his kitchen and busted his toe.)

He didn’t strain or shred his back pulling his cowboy boots up. (Hall of Famer Wade Boggs once did.)

He didn’t fall asleep with a bitter-cold ice bag on his foot and awaken with a case of frostbite causing him to miss a few games—in August. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson stone cold did.)

He didn’t get his face badly sunburned on a tanning bed. (Marty Cordova was the genius who forgot the Coppertone.)

He isn’t known to have attended motivational speeches, necessarily, but if he did he probably had too much sense not to think after hearing one that he could tear the world’s thickest telephone book in half without dislocating his shoulder. (Relief pitcher Steve Sparks had to learn the hard way.)

He never once thought, we think, that he could haul a full heavy side of deer meat up a flight of stairs until the venison-to-be won the weight division by sending him flying downstairs and into a broken collarbone. (Clint Barmes, alas, lost that fight in 2010.)

He was part of no few on-field celebrations, we’re sure, but he never tore his left meniscus by smooshing a pie in a teammate’s face during a postgame interview. (Not the way Marlins utilityman Chris Coghlan did nailing Wes Helms in 2010.)

He’s not the genius who forgot to look all ways while reaching for a fallen sock before the suitcase his wife fiddled with fell over and landed on his hand, causing the injury he tried to hide until even the blind saw he couldn’t grip his bat right. (Jonathan Lucroy was such a genius, in 2012.)

And, he didn’t dislocate his ankle while trampolining with one of his children. (Joba Chamberlain jumped into that while with his then five-year-old son in 2012.)

Ellsbury once broke the Red Sox’s consecutive-game errorless streak record. He also once scored on a wild pitch—from second base. He was once so swift on the bases and in the outfield that he could have challenged the Road Runner to a foot race and won by a neck. He hit four doubles and stole a base in the 2007 World Series; he looked like he’d secure himself as one of the Red Sox’s all-time greats.

At least, he did until he ran into a human earth mover named Adrian Beltre at third base in an April 2010 game. He came back too soon from four hairline rib fractures, felt enough soreness to see a thoracic specialist who recommended more rest and rehab, rejoined the Red Sox early that August, and re-injured the ribs on a play against the Rangers later that month.

Then Ellsbury won the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year for 2011, not to mention both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and a second-place Most Valuable Player finish, while being practically the only Red Sox player who didn’t collapse during that September and thus invite the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012.

Ellsbury smashed his shoulder up trying to break up a double play early in the nightmare. He returned in July, then almost made it injury free through 2013. Oops. Compression fracture in his right foot from fouling a ball off the hoof in late August. Returned in time to shine in that run to and through the World Series.

Fed up enough with the false whispering that he just didn’t like to rehab his injuries fast enough (for whom, folks?) that when the Yankees reached out to him with a yummy contract he couldn’t possibly say no.

In Year One of his Yankee tenure he performed, well, the way Jacoby Ellsbury was supposed to perform, including leading the American League with his 22.7 power/speed number. And it was the last season in which being injury free enabled him to perform that well.

Injuries, unfortunately, sap and catch up to players little by little. The Ellsbury Dough Boy had more than his share before becoming a Yankee. And then . . . and then . . . and then . . . and then along came:

2015—Right knee sprain on 20 May; out two months, rest of the season nothing to brag about, unfortunately.

2016—Uninjured but production falling further, including his lowest total stolen bases to that point during a healthy season.

2017—Smashed his head against the center field wall while making a highlight-reel catch. Concussion. Missed 29 games and lost his center field job to Aaron Hicks, but somehow managed to break Pete Rose’s career record for reaching base on catcher’s interference, doing it for the thirtieth time on 11 September, which also happened to be his 34th birthday.

2018—Strained his right oblique at spring training’s beginning. Turned up in April’s beginning with a torn hip labrum. Missed the entire season (and underwent surgery in August) because of it.

2019—Started the season on the injured list with a foot injury; also turned up with plantar fasciitis in the foot (the same injury plus knee issues that reduced Albert Pujols as an Angel to a barely replacement-level designated hitter) and another shoulder injury. Took until September for the Yankees to admit Ellsbury was lost for the year.

Not one of those injuries was caused by anything other than playing the game or performing other baseball-related activity. Remember that before you continue condemning Ellsbury the man or the Yankees as a team over him. He didn’t come to the Yankees believing his previous injuries began draining the talent that was once so electrifying, and he didn’t put on the pinstripes expecting to become an orthopedic experiment, either.

The 36-year-old is said to be finishing rehab and preparing to play in 2020 if there’s a team willing to have him. Ignore the jerk brigades and wish him well. Maybe even wish that he decides at last that his spirit may still be willing but his body’s already had notarised, “Don’t even think about it.”

It’s not easy for baseball players to get the game out of their systems, but if Ellsburry chooses to retire at last, instead of offering up any further sacrifices to the Elysian Field gods, who can blame him?

“Some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball,” Ron Hunt once said after a career in which his most notable accomplishment was teaching himself to be hit by pitches and taking every one of his 243 plunks. (Hunt led the Show in such plunks six straight during his twelve seasons.)

Ellsbury gave a lot more of his body to baseball than even Hunt did. He has three stolen base championships (two of which led the Show), one total bases championship (364 in 2011), one triples championship (ten in 2010), and a few million dollars in the bank for it. It’s the least he could have gotten for his sacrifices.

But if they ever come up with a surefire immunity to the stupid virus, fans who think on-the-job baseball injuries equal character flaws or teams whose brain trusts have suffered aneurysms should be first to get the shots.