When sucking it up sucks

Jack Flaherty

If you’re ailing, speak up. You might save yourself some worse injury grief—even immediately.

The one pitcher the Cardinals could not afford to lose, especially missing two other key starting pitchers, is lost to them now. For who knows how long. It raises a dilemna almost as old as baseball itself: Who’s responsible for knowing or revealing when a player, any player, is injured enough to remove him before further damage is done?

Jack Flaherty admitted he started feeling tight in his side while pitching in the bottom of the fifth in his hometown Dodger Stadium Monday evening. But his turn in the batting order was due up in the top of the sixth and—right after Justin Williams led off with a home run to cut the Dodger lead to 2-1—he went out to the plate.

Flaherty swung on 0-1 at an outer-edge service from Dodger righthander Trevor Bauer, foul ticked it, and grimaced noticeably during the swing before hopping around the plate area in discomfort. He remained at the plate to finish the turn, taking a low ball one and then a called strike three. Then Cardinals manager Mike Shildt removed him from the game.

Now Flaherty’s on the ten-day injured list with a no-doubt oblique strain, and the Cardinals expect him to miss more time than that. With fellow key starters Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson already on the list—and baseball suffering quite the injury epidemic already this season—this is exactly what the Cardinals don’t need.

The question before the house—provoked in part by a social media debate into which I fell after noting Flaherty gone to the ten-day injured list Tuesday but likely to be out longer—is this: Should Shildt have been aware his man was ailing and either a) pinch-hit for him right off the bat in the sixth; or, b) removed him at once following the fateful swing to let another hitter finish the turn?

You might think the manager’s job includes awareness of his pitcher’s condition in the moment. Sometimes that awareness causes managers unwarranted grief, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash can tell you from Game Six of last year’s World Series. But often as not that awareness does the manager a big favour when he has all his other marbles in the right place.

Should Shildt himself have noticed Flaherty feeling tight in the bottom of the fifth? Open to debate. Should he have seen Flaherty in obvious discomfort swinging on that foul tick and pulled him on the spot for a pinch swinger to finish the plate appearance? Open to debate likewise.

It’s not unprecedented for a batter to be pulled for assorted reasons during a plate appearance and for a pinch hitter to finish the turn. But there’s a missing link between the fifth and the sixth: Flaherty himself, and whether he thought to speak up and admit he wasn’t feeling quite right.

The Cardinals’ most valuable pitcher probably had no business at the plate or staying in the game to get there in the first place. If last year’s universal designated hitter had been made permanent from this year forward, as it most assuredly should have been, Flaherty wouldn’t have even had to worry about checking in at the plate.

Maybe in that instance, the tightness he felt in the fifth would have eased up with a half-inning off for good behaviour and allowed him to pitch one more inning—this time, with a one-run lead. Maybe.

Shildt had an option on his bench if he wanted it, lefthanded swinger Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hasn’t been the hitter he once was for about three seasons, now, but he would have been a hitter at all. He’s not historically the most dangerous man at the plate with two strikes, but he does have ninety hits including 23 home runs lifetime when hitting with two strikes on him.

With the bases empty, nobody out, and the Cardinals back to within a run of the Dodgers after Williams’s leadoff blast, do you really want a pitcher—a breed that’s hitting a whopping .109 with a glandular .146 on-base percentage and a swollen .141 slugging percentage—at the plate to start turning a one-run deficit into a tie game at minimum? (Sit down and shut up, Old Fart Contingency.)

No, you wouldn’t, if you could help it. Flaherty himself is no big bopper at the plate. Not hitting .185 this season, he isn’t.

Talking during a post-game press conference, Flaherty admitted he doesn’t like coming out of games on his own volition if he can help it. Bulldogging pitchers earn plenty of gold stars. But they like other players also bulldog themselves into bigger trouble when they don’t give their bodies the benefit of the doubt.

The injury you try playing or pitching through today can and too often does turn into the one that knocks you out for a lot longer than you’d like. Depending on the time of the season, it also might help cost your team a postseason shot. With twelve players on the IL before Flaherty joined them, and a bullpen faltering (and overtaxed) too often already, the Cardinals could afford to have him among the missing about as much as a cobra can afford dinner, dancing, and a hotel reservation with a mongoose.

Even in today’s baseball there remains a cultural dilemna. Speak up when you’re hurting, there’ll still be those who look at you as a softie, maybe whisper thus half behind your back. Clam up when you’re hurting, they’ll call you a bulldog now but curse the day you were born when you’ve been disabled awhile with a far more severe problem and they find themselves in the pennant race’s rear view mirrors.

The old school managers weren’t always the most empathetic lot when it came to injuries, either. Maybe none was more notorious than Leo Durocher, whose problems blowing the 1969 National League East title including demanding his Cubs speak up when ailing—then denouncing them as “quitters” whenever they did speak up.

When Fred Hutchinson managed the Reds before his death of cancer in 1964, he once lifted his ace-in-the-making Jim Maloney—despite Maloney working on a potential no-hitter—beause he spotted Maloney in forearm discomfort. “When you have an arm like that,” Hutch told reporters post-game, “you don’t take chances.”

His successors Dick Sisler and especially Dave Bristol treated injuries as mortal sins, especially involving pitchers. “If he can just get the ball to the plate, he’s not hurting,” Bristol was once quoted as saying. Hutchinson was a former pitcher who knew better. Bristol was a former minor league infielder who pitched now and then, and his brains went to sleep on him. Maloney developed rest-of-career shoulder trouble after Hutchinson was gone and a concurrent unfair reputation as a crybaby when he did speak out now and then about his continuously barking shoulder.

Remember when another former Reds pitcher, reliever Rob Dibble, snarked his way out of a Nationals broadcasting job for zapping young Stephen Strasburg coming out of a game with what seemed forearm issues at the moment? “Suck it up, kid. This is your profession,” Dibble huffed. “You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow . . . stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.”

Turned out Strasburg had more than just a forearm issue—he faced Tommy John surgery. He’s had injury issues throughout his career; until last year, he pitched damn well when healthy. Including when he stood as the 2019 World Series MVP. Dibble should have known even better than Hutchinson actually did—he’d missed the entire 1994 season after shoulder surgery and was gone within two years. Suck it up, kid.

Sandy Koufax sucked it up in 1965-66, after learning his pitching elbow was arthritic. He’d already gone from no great shakes through 1960 to off the charts from 1961-64. In 65-66, he went from off the charts to the tenth dimension aided by a medical regimen that could have killed him if the workload (699 innings over those two seasons) didn’t.

Then—gone. Koufax decided sucking it up, even to win two of his three Cy Young Awards, back-to-back pennants, and a World Series, wasn’t worth living what he feared would be a compromised life. Good for him. It ensured his baseball immortality. And, it let him make a liar out of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the author’s maxim about the lack of second acts in American life.

(It also spared us the sight of a Hall of Famer in decline, letting Koufax leave at 30 frozen forever as a young lancer who turned plate appearances into battles against the unarmed.)

By the way, Shildt eventually did call upon Carpenter to pinch hit Monday, an inning later. Except that Dodger manager Dave Roberts promptly lifted Bauer and compelled Shildt to pull Carpenter back, when Roberts brought in lefthander Victor Gonzalez, in favour of righthanded hitting Lane Thomas. Gonzalez struck Thomas out for the side.

An inning earlier, perhaps Roberts would have let Bauer work his way through. As it was, after Flaherty finished his standing plate appearance before leaving the game entirely, Tommy Edman reached on an infield throwing error and Dylan Carlson hit one over the center field fence to give the Cardinals their only lead of the game.

Maybe if Carpenter had pinch hit to finish Flaherty’s plate appearance, he might have tagged a hit or reached otherwise (he’s walked fourteen times this year and still has a good enough eye at the plate to keep doing it) and instead enabled a 4-2 score after five and a half inning. (The Cardinals went on to lose, 9-4.)

From every account and appearance, Shildt is not an insensitive man. He’s had his moments of snark and foolishness, but they’ve been few enough so far. Right now, he’s in a pennant race in which he’d love to stay all the way. He can’t afford to let his wounded stay quiet before they go from ailing to disaster.

Unless you believe as I do that the universal DH is an idea whose permanent time is overdue enough, Flaherty didn’t get injured doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. He got hurt on the job doing his job. As one Twitter respondent said to me, it sucks that he got hurt but that’s part of the game.

Indeed. Not just to pitchers, either: Fernando Tatis, Jr. took an early exit in the sixth Tuesday night when he felt tightness in the same area, too. The Padres are keeping him day-by-day to be safe. Young as he is, Tatis probably knows any compulsion to suck it up risks making things more painful.

If Flaherty felt compelled to keep quiet about his side tightness after the bottom of the fifth Monday, Shildt might consider talking to him and the rest of his players. He could tell them it does themselves or the club no good to stay quiet when hurting.

“Talk up and sit down now, rather than hit disaster down the stretch. You’re not less of a man for being injured, but you’d be less of a man if it went from bad enough to worse.” That’s what Shildt could and should tell his Cardinals. That’s what Jayce Tingler might want to tell his Padres, too. That’s what any manager should want to tell his team.

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.