You know another baseball season is inching gingerly from its Sun Belt launch pad with customary glacial rapidity when early news out of Fort Myers reveals that five charter members of the local nine are already hors de combat before there’s been any combat.
Bruised enough, or not yet fully recovered as to be able to fully perform, at least momentarily, are Citizens Ortiz, Napoli, Buchholz, Kalish, and Doubront. That’s one eighth of the entire roster, although in the matter of the young lefty Felix Doubront, it’s mainly about him reporting to camp substantially overweight. If he’d had the pleasure of playing for Dick , he’d have already been cut.
It’s only February, so it’s reasonable to assume they’ll all mend, although Kalish is out indefinitely and the pressure on the luckless Mike Napoli – their most important off-season acquisition – to stay healthy seems overwhelming. Still, it’s fairly amazing that even before the first intra-squad tilt is staged, the subject of injuries on this team is already pertinent. With the Red Sox, it’s never too early to raise bad luck as a nifty excuse for a bad season.
That’s been their custom of late, or at least the preferred rationale of upper management. The ownership triumvirate clearly holds that injuries mainly explain – even justify – their precious franchise’s ignoble skid from the loftiest of heights in 2007 to the bottom of the barrel in 2012.
Granted, the numbers are striking. Over the last three seasons in which they’ve been conspicuously AWOL from the post-season, they’ve had 71 players grace the disabled list (i.e., out at least 15 games per pop) for an aggregate loss of 3,316 games. Like any other set of statistics, especially in baseball, such numbers can be easily manipulated to serve any given argument and thus beg to be heavily scrutinized if your goal is to be objective. Having said that, there’s no denying these numbers are no less “striking.”
But is the ultimate explanation mainly about “bad luck” or “bad management”? It’s revealing that simmering just below the surface as another spring training begins is another dandy Red Sox controversy, this one concerning the alarming turmoil and turnover in the team’s medical services department in recent years.
In its totality, the Red Sox extended medical staff is huge, with enough physicians, surgeons, specialists, advisers, consultants, therapists, conditioners, trainers, hand-holders, soothsayers, and dispensers of mere opinion to keep a major hospital afloat. From a distance – and with an admittedly limited grasp of the subject’s subtleties – it sure seems odd how many connected with this team have been unhappy with the situation, and it’s certainly a list that includes players.
The whole convoluted issue of health, injury, fitness, repair, and rehabilitation in baseball has always been touched with mystery and that mystery has deepened since players became so heavily paid and wealthy.
Is that because management is more anxious to protect its investments than it was back when ballplayers were a dime a dozen and got paid like indentured field hands? Or is it perhaps because ballplayers no longer willingly risk their fabulous good fortune for the sake of the dear old town team and have become immensely clever at finding ways to avoid having to do so? You may recall that on his way out the door the irascible Bobby Valentine essentially snorted as much and promptly got hooted down. If you have the answer, you are eligible to next tackle the Gordian knot.
Of course in near all other games, baseball players are regarded as the ultimate wimps. This has nothing to do with the issue of courage. All agree it takes much of it to stand in there against some whacked-out teenage lefty who throws 98 mph and has, otherwise, no clue. There are demonic linebackers in the Football Hall of Fame who would never have dared stare with a bat on their shoulder at a menacing Nolan Ryan 60 feet away. It’s not about courage but it has much to do with pain and how to accept it, endure it, deal with it.
Everything’s relative. There’s risk in countless little baseball moments. But does rounding third aiming to elude the catcher compare with reaching for a pass with a deranged strong safety aiming his helmeted head at your spinal column? I don’t think so. In rare baseball instances, you can get hurt running into a wall or diving for a liner, but as dangers go it’s not comparable to having to retrieve the puck against the boards as the Zdeno Charas of the NHL descend upon you dozens of times a game, night after night.
Overall, baseball remains the softest, most leisurely, most pastoral of games. Does it take as much fortitude in terms of stresses on the mind and spirit as well as the body to play a championship baseball game as a championship tennis match? The answer is “no”!
All of which adds to the puzzle of why baseball is so plagued with injury. In their conceit, the Red Sox like to think they’ve cornered the market on tough luck. But that’s nonsense. Every team thinks its case is comparable.
The Yankees now face a season with likely little help from Alex Rodriguez and less from Michael Pineda while there’s no guarantee that at age 38, Derek Jeter can come all the way back from a major mishap. It was the mere fear of injury to highly regarded phenom Stephen Strasburg that probably cost Washington its first baseball championship in eight decades. On and on it goes.
It’s the very nature of baseball that compounds the game’s injury issue. Little wounds that are easily borne in harder, harsher games can be debilitating. A hockey player might miss just one shift with the very same fractured pinkie that sidelines a baseball player for a month. It has nothing to do with guts. Your hands have to be in decent shape to handle the delicate and finely crafted art of swinging a bat even if you’re a Paul Bunyan.
You play anything and sooner or later you get hurt. It’s the iron law of the world of fun and games. It’s the tolerance of the inevitable that sets teams apart. Those that whine too much are invariably losers. That, too, is axiomatic. The Red Sox need pay heed.
Furthermore, it may also be smart of Red Sox owners to get over the monumental snit they are currently wallowing in over the very fine memoir Terry Francona has left us with the considerable help of the estimable Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe. “Francona: The Red Sox Years” is a terrific book for two excellent reasons:
First is the quality of Shaughnessy’s writing and reporting with its abundance of exquisite detail that lifts this work much above the norm for sports ‘as-told-to’ tomes. No surprise there. Shaughnessy is among the very best in the business, with much deserved national stature. That he gets sniped at by so many local yahoos and mediocrities one finds highly aggravating, although not surprising, envy never being in short supply.
Second is the remarkable candor of Francona. Whether it’s because he felt he had an axe to grind or simply believed it was the right thing to do –which is what I prefer to accept – Francona’s honesty is grand, especially coming from such a devout baseball-lifer whose embrace of the canons of the clubhouse has been unequivocal since the day he was born.
It’s a fine book; rich, amusing, and real. What more do you want? Yet the owners persist in snidely smearing it, rather desperately. Owner-boys Lucchino and Werner have alternately branded it “fiction,” and it’s presumed they also speak for boss of the bosses, John Henry. But when asked to specify what’s “fictional,” they categorically refuse to answer.
These silly fellows defeat their own cause. Don’t they realize how petty they make themselves seem? How much better they’d look if they tipped their hats to the chap who made them look so good. You could almost feel sorry for them, if they weren’t owners.