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.

“Totally vindicated—at enormous cost”

J.R. Richard

J.R. Richard, who couldn’t convince anyone who mattered that something was seriously wrong with him before a trio of strokes almost killed him in 1980.

“The more money we make the less fans will be sympathetic with an athlete’s problems. I admit, players today are vastly overpaid. It blows my mind thinking about the salaries. But it seems like the money has taken away our humanity. Sign a million-dollar contract and you’re no longer a person. You’re supposed to be perfection.”

Let me guess: you just read those words and think they came from a replacement-level player, a jock-turned-broadcaster, or a sportswriter. If you chose the third, you’re half right. Thomas Boswell got those words out of the mouth of Deacon Jones—not the football legend, but the pitching coach of the 1980 Astros.

Jones spoke about the late James Rodney Richard. (That’s how broadcasters starting with Dodger legend Vin Scully identified him invariably on the first reference during a game.) What hitters couldn’t do to him at his best, what turned out a trio of strokes did. They took down and nearly killed the 6’8″ righthander who looked as though he could shake your hand from the mound without reaching before blowing you away.

Richard’s collapse during a personal Astrodome workout while on the disabled list embarrassed everyone in the game—from the Astros themselves on upward and outward. The ones who accused Richard of malingering. At best. At worst, well, you almost don’t want to know.

Jones and a few others with and around the Astros spoke to Boswell the day after. “Richard’s life and his career remained in danger yesterday in the aftermath of emergency ‘life-or-death’ surgery Wednesday for removal of the clot,” Boswell wrote. “However, Richard, whose reputation had suffered much public damage in the last month, was totally vindicated—but at enormous cost.”

For two months prior to that fateful workout and collapse, Richard struggled to pitch through an inexplicably dead feeling shoulder and arm that left his fingertips showing blood traces and his fingers feeling numb. Even in the 1980 All-Star Game, when he started the game and struck four batters out including Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson and Carlton Fisk.

“The saddest irony of Richard’s two months of pain,” Boswell wrote, “was that his fortitude and determination to pitch were what led to almost universal questioning of his motives.”

“”I hope the skeptics are happy now,” Jones said to Boswell. “J.R. has almost had to die before anyone would take him at his word.”

Every town where we went for weeks there were stories intimating that J.R. was a drug addict, or that he was jealous of [teammate/rotation mate] Nolan Ryan and wanted more money, or that he was just a rich, lazy athlete who was loafing.

This whole experience has felt sort of tragic because it’s so typical of our society to assume the worst about everybody. In J.R.’s case, they assumed the worst about the best.

“The world owes J.R. Richard an apology,” said a Houston radio editorial quoted by Boswell to open that essay. How often did that station’s sports people and others on the air and in the printed press of the time launch or jump aboard the lazy-J.R. wagon?

Think about Boswell’s words a moment. You can pitch or play your way through inexplicable pain and have your motives questioned. You can do something about that inexplicable pain before it turns to something worse—and have your motives questioned. In professional sports, it’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

Did we learn our lesson after what happened to Richard? Of course not. It’s bad enough that Joe and Jane Fan—and, too often, Joe and Jane Sportswriter or Joe and Jane Broadcaster—think losing is a sign of moral turpitude. It’s worse that, as often as not, they think injuries or illnesses equal character flaws. Including a penchant for theft.

Or have you forgotten how often people talked about the millions Albert Pujols “stole” from the Angels when—after he had a first Angel season reasonably close to a future Hall of Famer’s best when he’s about to hit a natural decline phase—a series of foot and leg and lower body injuries reduced him to a comparative shell who could still hit but couldn’t do anything else for the rest of his time in Anaheim?

It’s even worse than that when athletes who should be the first to know better see a struggling teammate who knows something’s grievously wrong with him and dismiss him as a malingering weakling—whether he’s a 6’8″ behemoth or a 5’10” shrimp.

Leo Durocher dismissed injured players as quitters. I’m racking my brain trying to remember which manager or coach was quoted as saying, “If you’re injured, you’re dead to me.” For a black athlete who only looked invincible on the mound enough that he seemed to be toying with hitters as if enjoying a private laugh, it was even worse.

“I hate to get into this,” Jones told Boswell. “Sure, being black is part of the way J.R. got treated. You won’t find a black player who doesn’t assume that. But, partly, it’s being rich and partly it’s being so big and indestructible looking.”

“The same people who cut [Richard] up so bad and said he is ‘jaking’ or having a nervous breakdown or even that he was getting a divorce,” fumed Richard’s Astros teammate and bestie Enos Cabell, “it’s like they’re down in a hole today with their shoulders hunched so low that you can barely see them. But they’ve done their damage.”

Don’t get me started on the graveyards worth of players who played through injuries or illnesses, made them worse, and cost their teams a lot more than what their teams lost with them on disabled lists. Who knows whether the 1980 Astros would have gone all the way, instead of being throttled in the National League Championship Series, if Richard’s early complaints were heeded, diagnosed properly, and treated accordingly?

Sports medicine has been a cesspool of willful ignorance and downright malpractice for a very long time—from long before what happened to J.R. Richard. In too many ways, it still is. It also works in reverse now and then. Who knows how often still a team receives  sound medical counsel and dismisses it the way George Steinbrenner once dismissed such counsel to make a dubious trade for a pitcher on the threshold of career over?

Steinbrenner wanted to trade for White Sox lefthander Britt Burns in 1985. The Yankees’ own team doctor, John Bonamo, told Steinbrenner not to even think about making the deal, because Burns turned up with a congenital hip issue that was likely to finish his career. After Bonamo left the room, according to Bill Madden and Moss Klein’s Damned Yankees, Steinbrenner turned to others said, “What does he know about baseball? He’s a doctor. We’re baseball men.”

The Boss made the deal anyway. Sure enough, Burns never threw another major league pitch. Dr. Bonamo would have been within his rights to snort about what Steinbrenner and his “baseball men” didn’t know about medicine.

Competent doctors with the 1980 Astros would have suggested a neurologist and a thoracic specialist have a look when Richard complained about the continuing numbness in his fingers, ringing in his ears, and general fatigue in his shoulder area. But maybe that Astro administration would have sniffed that “baseball men” knew better, too.

Those Astro quacks—who weren’t just on their medical staff—just told him to shake it off and keep throwing those 100 mph fastballs. Just the way a few too many fans today tell Mike Trout to just shake off that calf injury, get back up there, swing, and challenge outfield fences again. Damn the prospective long-term cost.

You may or may not remember: Richard eventually won a $1.2 million malpractise suit against those Astro quacks.

Richard’s career was over for all intent and purpose after that trio of strokes. He hit rock bottom over the decade to follow, then picked himself up, dusted himself off, and resurrected himself with a little help from his friends. (And, a lot of help from his church and his third wife.) Among all baseball’s injury/illness-felled “what-ifs,” Richard’s at least in the top five.

And Joe and Jane Fan, Joe and Jane Sportswriter, and Joe and Jane Broadcaster, often as not, still don’t learn. The least-seeming injury can be and often is a lot more serious and obstructive than you think. To which the only proper answer should be, “If you think injuries or illnesses equal malingering, moral turpitude, or money theft, you’re dead to me.”