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January 15, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

Why Baseball Players Get Injured in Amazingly Weird Ways

by John Paschal

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

A former river guide, ranch hand, farm hand, oyster shucker and semi-professional bongo player, which is to say that he was paid in beer during late-night performances, John Paschal now spends his time at work on a book while fending off the advances of mixed metaphors and run-on sentences. You can reach him at AzureTexan@yahoo.com.

The fabled Orion, predatory lord of the interstellar hunt, appeared to take aim at Major League Baseball last month by turning two of its developing stars into unwitting props of a hackneyed conceit: Yes, the hunters became the hunted. Padres pitcher Andrew Cashner and Cubs manager Dale Sveum were injured in hunting accidents, Cashner when a buddy punctured the thumb on the righty’s throwing hand while trimming a carcass, and Sveum when former teammate Robin Yount pumped shotgun pellets into the skipper’s back and dome during a desert quail hunt. Anti-hunting advocates might have seen the events as karmic comeuppance, but the rest of us probably considered them ironically comical, or comically ironic, or whatever expression an observer might use when describing scenes that only O. Henry could have better concocted.

Fiction or nonfiction, this type of scenario plays to a common rhetorical device, putting into use the clear discrepancy between the expected outcome—a hunter shooting a bird of prey, let’s say – and the actual turn of events—a hunter treating his friend’s right ear like a 108mm clay pigeon. Perhaps more absurd is the sight, or the imagined sight, of professional athletes getting injured in laughably amateurish ways, misfortunes that should more readily afflict those of us who can’t hit a 145-foot slapshot into the net or a crosscourt backhand into the corner. The image of an NHL tough guy pulling an oh-my-back! routine while eating a stack of pancakes, or a nimble tennis star twisting an ankle while doing her best So You Think You Can Dance at a cousin’s wedding, is the stuff of satiric gold, something like a food critic choking on her braised veal ossobuco or a veteran firefighter burning his finger while making s’mores. It’s irony in the figure of an out-of-character clown.

Still, for every Lionel Letizi, the accomplished pro goalie who suffered a back injury while reaching for a Scrabble tile, or Lionel Simmons, the Sacramento King who incurred carpal tunnel syndrome by playing too much Nintendo, there appear to be a dozen baseball players who somehow ticked off Até, the Greek goddess of folly, and suffered the type of off-the-field injuries that defy logic (or at least expectation). In one incident, Padres pitcher Adam Eaton stabbed himself in the stomach while trying to remove the cellophane wrapper of a DVD case. In another, journeyman outfielder Glenallen Hill suffered severe lacerations when he crashed into a glass table after having a nightmare about being attacked by giant spiders. In 2004, Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa got himself sidelined with back spasms caused by a particularly violent sneeze, and current Reds pitcher Mat Latos once landed on the 15-day DL due to back pain from holding back a sneeze.

One future Hall of Famer broke a hand while playing with his kids on the family yacht, and another cracked a rib while puking up an in-flight meal. In keeping with the theme, 1989 National League MVP Kevin Mitchell suffered not one but two food-related injuries, first when he strained a muscle while vomiting and then when he broke a tooth while eating a donut. Famously, All-Star pitcher John Smoltz is said to have burned himself while ironing a shirt he was wearing at the time, though he later called the story apocryphal. Just as famously, Orioles outfielder Marty Cordova once missed time after he went all George Hamilton by falling asleep in a tanning bed.

An inquisitive person might wonder why baseball players, as opposed to football, basketball, and soccer players (in addition to hockey players, tennis players and golfers), seem to occupy a majority of the floors in the Infirmary Of Athletes Injured In Bizzaro Ways. One answer might have its premise in basic math, in the same way California, Texas, New York and Florida seem to supply a preponderance of the quirky narratives that show up in Chuck Shepard’s News of the Weird. Those four states simply have more people—in many cases, a lot more people— than the other 46 states, so it stands to reason that they would feature more prominently than, say, Wyoming and Vermont, with their populations of around 600,000, in stories that take on the ignoble quality of urban myth.

Likewise, MLB teams carry rosters of 25 and, after Sept. 1, 40 players, compared to the NBA’s rosters of 15 and the NHL’s 23. Put those numbers up against the PGA’s field of 150 players and the ATP’s field of four players whom John Q. Sixpack has really ever heard of, and you might see why Major League Baseball, with its September sum of 1,200 players, supplies more victims of electric fans—pitcher Kyle Farnsworth, when he kicked one, and pitcher Mark Smith, when he put his hand in one to see if the thing was on—than the NBA, NHL, PGA or the touring company of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, with special appearances by M. Sharapova.

Still, the math doesn’t quite add up when we bring the NFL, with its weekly totals of 1,504 active and 1,696 rostered players, into the comparison. Granted, football players have been known to shoot themselves in nightclubs (the infamous Plaxico Burress) and to burn themselves with fondue (the not-famous Jaret Holmes). But by any sober reckoning, with the notable exception of the time a driver in a Patriots jersey accidentally rear-ended a car driven by former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas, they simply don’t seem to miss playing time due to the sorts of wacko misadventures that routinely bedevil baseball players, such as arm strain caused by playing too much Guitar Hero (Joel Zumaya); eye irritation brought on by a Scoville Scale dose of chili juice (Bret Barberie); a muscle strain meted out by an uncooperative pillow (Brandon Inge); a dislocated shoulder courtesy of the Phoenix Yellow Pages (Steve Sparks); a torn ACL delivered by a set of unhelpful stairs (Clint Barmes); a sliced finger by way of an unobliging butter knife (Oddibe McDowell); multiple cuts dished out by an inconvenient door (Hunter Pence); or a punctured eardrum inflicted by a troublesome Q-Tip (Henry Cotto).

So, given the fact that objective math provides only an incomplete answer, we must turn to the subtle art of subjective guessing, with each of us hazarding a sound hypothesis as to why baseball players seem to suffer a disproportionate number of very odd mishaps—the sort that saw former infielder Chris Brown miss time because he “slept on (his) eye funny” and former infielder Geoff Blum land on the DL with an elbow injury he sustained while putting on a shirt. And let’s not forget the time All-Star Ron Gant, just a week after signing the largest single-season contract in history, broke a leg in an off-season motorcycle accident, or the day All-Star Larry Walker separated his shoulder while fishing.

“I’d say the reason baseball players injure themselves in weird ways is because they (a) have a lot of free time; and (b) they have a lot of money,” posits baseball writer Craig Calcaterra, of the NBC Sports website Hardball Talk, in an emailed response. “This allows them to fill that free time with all manner of fun and, occasionally, dangerous activities. Helping things along is that, as elite athletes, they have never had a particularly hard time doing things most people can’t do. I have this feeling a lot of them think they’re going to be immediately and effortlessly successful in other pursuits as well. Which, unfortunately, isn’t always the case.”

John Thorn, the Official Historian of Major League Baseball, is considerably more succinct.

“Randomness,” he writes.  

So, yeah, it might be an abundance of time and treasure, it might be an absence of pattern and predictability, it might be that baseball players rely more acutely on the keen operation of fine motor skills and therefore succumb more easily to Q-Tipped ears and chili-juiced eyes. Or it might be that baseball, more than any other sport, highlights its individuals and therefore celebrates its personalities like opera honors its divas and rock n’ roll salutes its rebels. That’s a possibility that would not only lend each player license to do something completely peculiar—say, former Dodgers outfielder Jay Johnstone standing in line at the concession stand, during a game, to buy a hot dog (not particularly dangerous); former journeyman pitcher Moe Drabowsky ordering Chinese takeout from the bullpen phone (quite possibly dangerous); and former Cleveland outfielder Joe Charboneau eating cigarettes (pretty darn dangerous)—but would also give more latitude to writers and their audiences to seize upon the stories that uphold the metanarrative: that baseball players, as a collection of rugged individualists, are more compelling people, more compelling characters, than the practitioners of sports in which teamwork is of prime significance.    

It’s no secret that on the fields and courts and rinks of competition, team sports like football, soccer, basketball and hockey are perpetual displays of collaborative action, each game a synchronized ballet of moving parts and linked incentives and each team a synergetic collective in which mano-a-mano battles feed directly into the larger interactive effort. Game plans are paramount, and the player who fails to observe the strategy and thus to respect the cause will find himself the odd man out, a pariah who’s flunked the test of prime concerns and taken on the scarlet letter of the punk or prima donna. 

Baseball, though, is different, with its daily pageant of 24 men eating sunflower seeds while watching a teammate take a called strike two, or eight men adjusting their cups while a pot-bellied manager tells his beleaguered pitcher to throw the ball over the plate (though not too much over the plate, lest the pitcher accept an all-expenses-paid trip to Triple-A Toledo). By its nature, the sport invites isolated displays of both brilliance and ineptitude, each player’s performance laid bare by the absence of the triangle offense and the nickel defense, the first a strategy allowing each player to pass with egalitarian flair to any teammate and the second a situational resistance comprised of defensive backs whom only the sharpest fan can identify.

By contrast, the baseball player stands alone, exposed, without the anonymity offered by the martial headgear of the gridiron soldier. He stands undisguised and demonstrably mortal, deprived of the deific physique of the power forward and the aggrandizing ’do of the soccer heartthrob. Obscurity is not his refuge, and idolatry is not his defense. Fed by the stats and updated with each of the I-bring-my-lunchpail-to-work-just-like-the-rest-of-you-mopes 162 games, his story runs somewhere between the hagiography of a Kobe Bryant and the one-line bio of a deep-snapper on an 8-8 team. And so, except for his 12-to-6 curveball or his ability to go from home to first in 3.8 seconds, he seems like a regular guy, a guy like me and you, and a guy, alas, you really could have a beer with—which might explain why Rube Waddell, an outstanding pitcher and all-world flake in the early 1900s, became so popular among the fans: because he often drank booze with them and even served as their bartender in the hours leading up to the game. The man seemed relatable, as they say. He seemed human.

Which is to say he seemed fallible. And he was. He often arrived late for games, if not because of his hijinx at local taverns then because he was busy playing marbles with kids, and sometimes changed from street clothes to his uniform while walking across the diamond. He packed pistols while on the road, occasionally threatening to shoot his manager. Most famously, he is said to have chased fire engines, often in mid-windup, while on the mound. Though uniformly loathed by his managers, his behavior proved irresistible to fans and the press, with writers and readers forming an unofficial alliance in support of “The Rube’s” mostly true if slightly exaggerated legend, and paved the way for latter-day characters like Drabowsky, Johnstone, Charboneau, Jimmy Piersall—who once ran around the bases backward—Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych to flaunt their brilliant feathers, not only without fear of a backlash but with confidence that their antics would find a receptive audience.

And yes, it’s true: Charboneau did eat cigarettes, he did open beer bottles with his eye sockets, and he did do his own dental work and repair his broken nose with a pair of pliers and a few shots of whiskey. The Spacemen did claim that marijuana use rendered him immune to bus fumes while he jogged to Fenway Park. And The Bird really did talk to the baseball while on the mound, coaxing the cowhide to do his bidding on its path to home plate. 

Alas, both The Bird and Superjoe were forced into premature retirement due to injuries sustained on the field, while the Spaceman has continued to play to this day, at age 65, in the North American Baseball League. Who knows what’s going to happen to a ballplayer, and once it’s happened, who knows why? And who knows who, in the end, will last? At least the Spaceman lasted longer than The Rube, who in the spring of 1912, having by some accounts saved a dozen or more lives in previous years, suffered a devastating case of pneumonia after standing chest deep in frigid water while stacking sandbags to stem a death-dealing flood in Kentucky. He died two years later, on April Fool’s Day, at age 37. 

The weird thing, if reports are to be believed, is that he never got hurt while working one of his many off-season jobs: duck hunting. (He also wrestled alligators.) But not even Waddell was immune to odd injuries: in 1905, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury while engaging in a friendly tussle over a straw hat.

Related Content:  Injuries

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