It’s cliché at this point to say that a win in April counts just as much as a win in September. And while that’s technically true, that doesn’t mean that those April games are equally important. They’re not. Ballplayers shouldn’t be going balls out in April if it means that they won’t be healthy for the rest of the year. There’s simply too much time left, too many games that a nagging injury can linger and sap value from a normally productive player.
I am sick and tired the culture of machismo that still pervades the game, as players try to play through pain and rub dirt on it and get back out there. Look, I know it’s not that simple. Bodies are complicated things, and it can be hard to tell what’s normal soreness and what’s actual pain. And it’s nice that ballplayers want to be on the field; it’s certainly better than the alternative. I even get the desire not to be perceived as “soft,” especially when injury risks can cost a player millions of dollars every year. But when the hell are ballplayers going to learn that playing through pain tends to make them play worse? And when they play worse, they don’t actually help their clubs?
Late last night, as the Twins were putting the finishing touches on another loss to the Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles, Canada’s favorite son Justin Morneau removed himself from the Minnesota lineup. After a few more minutes, news began to filter out over Twitter that he was experiencing renewed soreness in his left wrist, which is one of the many parts of Justin Morneau that doctors operated on last year. The news only got worse as Morneau flew back to Minnesota last night to see the team doctor, and presumably get an MRI. According to MLB’s Rhett Bollinger, Morneau’s wrist began bothering him a week ago in Tampa, and has gotten worse.
Prior to the Tampa series, Morneau was hitting .267/.353/.578 with four homers in 51 plate appearances. He looked strong and healthy for the first time in a year and a half since a concussion suffered against the Blue Jays left him debilitated and marked the start of a cascade of other problems. If there’s anyone who should have known to shut it down at the first sign of trouble, it’s Morneau, who has had surgeries on his left wrist, right foot, left knee and neck within the last calendar year. But instead, Morneau, and potentially the Twins trainers, allowed him to play for another week before the pain became too much. Since the start of the Tampa series on April 20, Morneau has played in eight games, and hit .172/.250/.276. Meanwhile, instead of costing the team in the short term but healing for the rest of 2012, Morneau and the Twins allowed him to both cost the team in the short term AND set him up for another potentially long DL stint.
The Twins had this problem last year with Morneau, and with Matt Capps, Joe Nathan, Denard Span, and Joe Mauer as well. Each of them came back too soon or tried to play through pain. Span came back early from a concussion and hit .057/.132/.057 in nine games before shutting it down again. Mauer started the season .235/.289/.265 in nine games. Morneau had a .618 OPS for the year. Capps saw his velocity drop, and with it his strikeout rate, due to elbow soreness. And Joe Nathan put up a 7.63 ERA over the first two months of 2011 before the Twins admitted that he wasn’t fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Even Scott Baker has tried to gut through what was called elbow soreness last season and again this spring, and ended up shredding his elbow and needing season-ending surgery.
And the Twins aren’t the only club with this problem. Carl Crawford played through pain last year and had his worst season. Brian Wilson tried to pitch through elbow troubles last year and wound up out for all of 2012. Hanley Ramirez played through back and knee problems all last year. Over and over again we see that players don’t play well when they’re hurt. And often when they’re suddenly not playing well, it’s because they’ve been hurt.
It’s time for teams to be more proactive. It’s time for players to be more vocal. It’s time to be clear that the long-term health of a player and a franchise is tied to how well they respond to the warning signs that players’ bodies are giving off. In a sport where winning and playing well means millions of additional dollars in revenue for team and player, it’s time to man up and take a day off when you need it, especially so I don’t have to see Chris Parmelee at first base all season long.