Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Injury Bug

In sports vernacular, the "disabled list" (“DL”) or "injured reserve" are commonly used terms thrown around as if the average inhabitant of the earth understands its meaning without the need for further explanation. For those unfamiliar with these terms, they describe a special status given to athletes with injuries in order to allow substitute players to temporarily replace them for the duration of their injury. If I sprain my ankle running, I still come into work or go to class, but professional athletes do not have that luxury. Recently Derek Jeter, who is in pursuit of 3,000 hits, attempted to leg out a slowly hit ground ball and strained his calf muscle. From the moment Jeter left Monday's game due to injury, the media has offered conjecture as to the severity of his injury. Will he will be placed on the disabled list? And, of course, how this will affect his quest to accomplish a goal that only 27 other Major League Baseball player have reached in the sports 230+ years of existence?

Jeter's injury probably won't adversely affect his team's play or their chances to be competitive, especially if his stint on the DL is short. Unfortunately, for many teams, most of the time that is not the case. Many times, an injury, depending on the type, length of recovery time, and who is injured, can dramatically affect a team and its chances of winning. The Minnesota Twins finished first in the AL central last season making the playoffs for the second consecutive season. This season they find themselves in last place mostly due to injuries. The 2011 Twins roster looks fairly similar to the 2010 roster, which begs the question, "Why have they been so bad this season after such a successful 2010 campaign?" The Twins' star players are without a doubt Joe Mauer, Justin Mourneau, and Delmon Young. Mauer has played in only 11 out of 65 games this season, Mourneau has missed 10 games, and Young has missed 20. Three key players on the DL has been the leading contributor to the Twins' struggles. Injuries, especially when afflicted upon smaller market teams with one or two key players, can plummet a first place team to the cellar.

Bigger market teams may avoid this plight. For An example bigger market teams affected but not debilitated by injuries are the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants. Recently, the Phillies, for the first time all season, put out their original starting lineup. Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Carlos Ruiz, Dominic Brown, and at least three bullpen pitchers have all visited the disabled list this season. Only recently have the Phillies had a starting 9 with no bench players. Because the team did not lose key players like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, and Placido Polanco to injury, the team has sustained its winning ways. But only a team with talent like the Phillies, Yankees, or Red Sox can sustain a high winning percentage while suffering numerous injuries to crucial players.

The San Francisco Giants lost star catcher Buster Posey for the rest of the season, second baseman Freddie Sanchez for an indeterminate amount of time, and will only now get third baseman Pablo Sandoval back in the lineup after a long DL stint. The Giants, like the Phillies, haven't lost all of their key assets and thus remain afloat and competitive despite injuries to 3/5 of their starting infield. Pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Brian Wilson, and Sergio Romo have all remained healthy, thus allowing the Giants to retain their lead in the NL west. Not all teams are so lucky. The Twins are only one example of a smaller market team where 2-3 injured stars have lead to a drop in the standings. The A's and Angels have suffered similar fates. The 2011 Oakland A's were destined to win because of their young but formidable pitching staff. Regrettably, key pitchers Andrew Bailey, Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, and Josh Outman have all succumbed to the DL for short periods of time. Anderson recently received good news regarding his elbow pain. At first Anderson's meeting with "Tommy John" expert Dr. James Andrews raised alarm bells, but ultimately his injury only required 6 weeks of rehab instead of major surgery followed by 18 months of rehab.

Not all teams are blessed with a prognosis like the A's pitcher Anderson. Last season, Stephen Strasburg burst onto the scene throwing 100 mph and winning baseball games, something few Washington Nationals pitchers have been able to accomplish. He left a game a few months after his debut with tightness in his elbow and received a diagnoses requiring Tommy John surgery. He remains injured, and most likely will not pitch again in the majors until August. In his case, the Nationals not only lose his stellar pitching, but they also miss the thousands more fans that would have attend games in D.C to see Strasburg.

Injuries are not always an awful scenario for a team. Sometimes injuries allow teams to call up highly touted prospects who otherwise wouldn't be called up. Other times injuries cause a general manager to make a trade that leads to better results than expected. Although these situations occur, injuries, especially to starters, always have negative aspects to them. In Derek Jeter's case, his team may barley miss his play, but his pursuit of 3,000 hits will be put on hold. Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies shortstop, suffered a similar injury to Jeter's current calf strain, and when asked about it, said,
"The best advice I can give Derek is, you’re going to get healed in the offseason."
He also mentioned that despite returning to play last season, his calf injury never fully healed until December."When you think your good, you’re not even close," remarked Rollins.
Essentially Rollins is telling Jeter, "Just because you’re about to become the first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits, the 27th major leaguer of all time to accomplish the feat, and secure your eventual induction into the Baseball hall of Fame, don't rush coming back because that may just worsen the injury." This seems to be good advice from someone who plays the same position with similar energy and competitiveness, and suffered a similar injury.

Jimmy Rollins is right. Players should make sure they are healthy before returning to the lineup, no matter how much their team needs them to play because other factors are stake. At the same time, baseball players are commonly referred to as wimpy athletes because they go to the disabled list with injuries like a mild calf strains, blisters, and elbow tightness. In hockey and football players regularly play with injuries more serious than those just mentioned, and such behavior is seen as gallant by fans who see such players as putting their team and teammates ahead of their own personal health. However, such behavior is foolish, especially for injuries like concussions, which can be sustained at any time and have few physical symptoms. I do not have a problem with a player playing injured as long as it is determined that the injury will not affect their play and will not have lasting affects on their health. But when players play through serious injuries, they need to rethink their decision. These injuries may not just affect the rest of their sports career—they may affect them for the rest of their lives.

I seriously injured my elbow pitching in high school. The injury was bad enough that my Orthopedist told me that I needed Tommy John surgery if I was to return to the mound. Instead of going through the surgery and extensive rehab, however, I opted out of the surgery and never pitched ever again. Although I still think about whether I made the right choice, overall I know that not pitching again is probably the best and healthiest choice. Although these decisions are never easy, especially when they affect one's livelihood (in professional sports), players need to consider all of their options and do what is best for their health, which sometimes means sitting out for long periods of time. So, I say to Derek Jeter, 3,000 hits will happen, and despite the media hoopla it does not matter when. So sit out, rehab and return healthy, strong, and ready to join the 3,000 hit club.

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