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The injury factor in modern baseball raises interesting questions about past and present

One – again –approaches this subject warily. When sports columnists wander from their cage in the toy department to grapple with issues like health, medicine, and injury, they are instantly out of their depth.

Yet it has reached the point – nay, well surpassed it – where it’s impossible to talk about the games and how they are being won or lost and how seasons are evolving or ought be managed without weighing the injury factor, appraising the disabled lists, and/or probing the waiver wire in search of reinforcements. It has become the study within the study.

Has it always been thus?  Yes, to some degree. For as long as people have played games requiring any degree of contact, or even just sheer exertion, people have been getting hurt. It goes with the territory and those who choose to play accept that.

But vaguely there’s the sense that these phenomena – however familiar – are edging to the level of explosion, as if they are spiraling out of control while never being more dominant as elements in the analysis. I use the term “sense” because it’s not possible to “know” for sure.

Of all the stuff that’s governed by statistical affirmation in sports, the injury factor, which is among the most vital, is the least informed. You can’t grade injuries the way you do base hits. Nor is there a body of statistical evidence from the 1933 season to compare with what’s happening in 2013. There’s plenty of myth from the good old days, but anecdotes aren’t evidence.

Okay, so the research is not terribly valid and the premises are shaky. But you must agree the discussion has never been more extensive or relevant? Is that merely a by-product of the Internet-driven 24-7 news cycle or can we again blame the talk-show mindset where ignorance is invariably bliss. Again, my answer is, “I don’t know.”

But it is mighty clear that once again this year (and seemingly as never before) baseball players are dropping like the proverbial flies. Does a day pass without a couple more going down? No!

On the afternoon the shaken Red Sox concede that reliever Joel Hanrahan, a prized off-season purchase, is done for the year, the Blue Jays, their opponent that day, are disabling Rajai Davis, their most consistent early-season performer. Just the day before, Boston also loses oft-wounded reliever Andrew Bailey. Meanwhile, the Yankees, whose staggering injury ordeal has made them sentimental favorites, were disabling Eduardo Nunez a day after getting Joba Chamberlain back. Not to be outdone, the Rays disable Brandon Gomes, and the A’s, who’d already lost nine players in one month, disable Josh Reddick, and the Rangers do the same with iron-willed A.J. Pierzynski, while the Orioles’ Brian Roberts undergoes surgery sidelining him two months.

All this in two days! So it goes in baseball these days.

Hanrahan is a huge loss for Boston. He’s a big, beefy character, so it seems astounding that an apparent minor forearm strain should escalate into major flexor tendon damage so swiftly. It will take him six months to recover, maybe nine. But it’s now becoming clearer in retrospect that there were warning signs.

After five seasons of heavy duty relieving he sagged late last year in Pittsburgh. He was shaky in March, got banged-up in April, and is gone in May. Should the Red Sox have wondered why the Pirates were so eager to dispose of a seemingly vital piece in their re-building?  Might Hanrahan have been compromised by a yearning to tough it out? It wouldn’t be the first time a beefy character failed to recognize signals being sent by his own body.

Relievers are notably vulnerable because while their role has been undergoing radical revision, there has been no agreement on how best to keep them healthy, though there’s no shortage of theories. Relievers have always been inscrutable. For much of baseball history it was a role reserved for the screwiest and most hard-boiled veteran rubber-arms.

Save “maybe” for Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox never had greater ones than Ellie Kinder, Dick Radatz, and Sparky Lyle, although Sparky unfortunately got to certify his brilliance in the Bronx. This delightful trio had much in common, including unlimited moxie and a fine sense of the absurd. But most importantly, all three were fabulous screwballs whom a Ring Lardner might have been pleased to create.
Kinder, whose wonderful works were mostly wasted on indifferent Sox teams of the fifties, was even more legendary for his antics. It was said the stiffer he got, the better he pitched. There’s that legendary tale of him driving his car into a Brookline tree at five in the morning and explaining to the gendarmes that he had swerved to avoid running over a dog. It inspired a teammate – probably Frank Sullivan – to observe, “Actually, I think Ellie saw three dogs.”

Old Ellie’s madcap life-style had no effect on his performance. Indeed, it may have inspired it. He pitched well deep into his forties. Radatz, who for at least two seasons was the greatest relief pitcher ever to walk the face of the earth, was even wilder off the field. It’s hard to know if that led to the fabled “Monster’s” premature burn-out. Much more suspect was the immense burden he was made to bear. As for Sparky, a tall scotch and soda brought out the best in him – on or off the field.

It’s the likes of such colorful chaps that stir old-timers – we dinosaurs, if you will – to wonder if modern techniques and tactics aren’t what they are said to be.       Ostensibly modern players in all games, most especially baseball, have colossal advantages in the maintaining of health, conditioning, and durability.
The list is endless: better equipment, better playing conditions, safety features (helmets etc.), huge advances in surgical procedures, new medical tools (MRIs etc.), vitamins and other legal enhancements, sophisticated training programs, year-round medical attentions, heightened sensitivity to issues like concussions, regulated diets, and counseling.

Where once a part-time team doc and a poorly trained trainer bore most of the burden, all teams now have on call medical staffs quite the equal of what first-class regional hospitals offer in much of the country. If you play for a team like the Red Sox, you have the best medical services in the universe at your finger tips and it’s eager to serve your every tender whim.

Yet the problem has never been greater, and while I don’t have facts to back that up, I know it’s true, and so do you.

Knowing how to skillfully deal with injury is becoming a crucial attribute of a smart front office.  Last year, the Red Sox used injury as the major excuse for an awful season and, accordingly, got much sympathy. But the Yankees were just as much impacted yet won the division and made the playoffs. Both teams last year lost well more than a thousand games of player-service to injury.

However, at their present rate, the Yankees will exceed that this year. With 11 players disabled and 306 manpower-games lost, they’re second only to the Dodgers, who’ve been decimated, in injury impact. It’s interesting that the two highest-payroll teams should be so affected. Or is it merely ironic?

Yet here we find the Yanks hanging out on top, as usual. GM Brian Cashman is taking well-deserved bows for skillfully patching his lineup with cheap, veteran role-players while his erstwhile all-stars gracing the D.L continue to mend. But then it’s only May. We’ll see how things look in July.

If there’s an explanation maybe it has to do with the simple fact that in all leagues nowadays, more games are played, in longer more grueling seasons, by bigger and stronger people, with greater intensity than ever, for the highest stakes ever.

This discussion has been mainly confined to baseball. But when you watch hockey’s astounding Stanley Cup Playoffs – a veritable human demolition derby – it seems a wonder as many survive as do.