Tuesday, March 20, 2012

MLB's Injury Epidemic

Recently, when St Louis Cardinals utility outfielder Skip Schumacher became the latest victim of major league baseball's trendiest injury - the strained oblique - I suddenly realized I never even knew what an "oblique" was when I was a kid (about 40 - 50 years ago); primarily since guys like Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Tony Perez, Brooks Robinson, Pete Rose, Ron Santo, Kenny Boyer, or Carl Yastrzemeski never seemed to have a problem with that.  In fact, each one of these great players averaged over 150 games played in the five-year span beginning with their age 28 season, through their age 32 season.  Billy Williams actually spent that five-year stretch playing in every single game for his team, the Chicago Cubs; while his fellow Hall of Fame teammate, Ron Santo, played in nearly every game in that time frame, while privately battling diabetes.  How's that for tough?

Clearly, there are significant occupational hazards in baseball which cause injuries; some minor, some career-ending.  These great players from my youth not only avoided straining their obliques or calves throughout the bulk of their careers, they also were fortunate enough - or smart enough - to steer clear of things like bone-breaking bean balls and outfield walls; and when sliding into bases, avoided bodily injury from their collisions with opposing players.  In the case of Pete Rose, who played the game as hard as anyone who ever played the game; he was usually the guy doling out the pain on the base paths, as Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse could attest on that famous last bone-crushing play of the 1970 All-Star Game.

While Fosse fell victim to that vicious, but clean, hit delivered by Charlie Hustle, a young Cardinals catcher by the name of Ted Simmons was just getting his career off the ground.  One of the greatest hitting catchers of all-time, Simmons was also one of the toughest.  In a feat unlikely to be duplicated any time soon, Simmons appeared in at least 150 games as catcher for St Louis, for an astounding seven consecutive seasons - 1972 - 1978.  In case anyone hasn't experienced the heat and humidity of St Louis in July and August, you don't know what you're missing.  For the tough-minded and durable Ted Simmons, "missing" (as in games) simply wasn't a part of his vocabulary.

Durability is as important to a player's success as his overall ability.  For every Cal Ripken Jr who grinds out every single game, year in, year out; seemingly forever; there are hundreds of of Grady Sizemores who seem to have everything going for them, except luck.  Injuries may be a part of the game, but for some players, injuries have become the biggest part of their game.  World Series hero David Freese is hoping for his first full injury-free season to prove what he accomplished last Fall was no fluke.  If the Cardinals have any chance of successfully defending their World Championship, they need to get 150 games out of their rising star, and close to that out of their seasoned stars - Lance Berkman and his old Astros teammate and newly acquired free-agent, Carlos Beltran.

Nowadays,  most players remain physically fit, year 'round, following a strict workout regimen that is intended to make them strong and agile.  But are some of these guys overdoing it?  I mean, when a 19-year old phenom - Bryce Harper - is sidelined with stiffness in his left calf, something's just not right.

Recently, I heard an interesting perspective from New York Mets color commentator, Keith Hernandez, on the rash of injuries plaguing so many players.  Hernandez observed that many of the Mets players were going to the gym before the scheduled games; since pumping iron tends to restrict muscles, it hampers the ability to play baseball the way it's meant to be played - free and easy.  His simple suggestion:  Hit the gym after the games, instead!

I think he knows what he's talking about.  I recall Hernandez, who was a superb defensive first baseman, spent a lot of time before games, stretching out the old muscles; with special emphasis on keeping the legs limber and flexible.  His strategy seemed to work; with cat-like defensive agility, Hernandez revolutionized the way first base was played, and no one played it better.

It's unclear what caused the calf problem of Bryce Harper; is it possible he overdid the weight-lifting routine on his legs, just a bit?   Was he so determined to make the Opening Day roster of the Washington Nationals, he spent a little extra time in the gym; instead of the batting cage?  After an unimpressive 8 for 28 (.286) performance in 9 games, which featured a team-leading 11 strikeouts and no home runs, the club decided the gimpy-calved teen-aged phenom would be better served playing AAA ball instead; at least for a while.

In the meantime, as more iron-pumping ballplayers strain their tight muscles, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the training regimen of former Heavy Weight Boxing Champion - the late Smokin' Joe Frazier - when he was in his prime.  Frazier, who was known for his relentless style of fighting and ferocious punching ability, explained why he avoided lifting weights:  "It makes me muscle-bound, and I can't afford to be muscle-bound."

Major league ballplayers can't afford to be muscle-bound, either; it's just not conducive to playing the game the way it's meant to be played.  Nor is it conducive to being able to play the game on a regular basis, for any players who really want to help their teams win.

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