Monday, June 1, 2009

Bandages, Backs & Ballgames

There are injuries that sideline baseball players alone. The rest of the civilized world does not call in sick because of a broken toenail.

If you watch Sportscenter or catch the evening news, you've probably heard about some very odd health battles that send baseball players to the disabled list. Maybe you've heard about Dontrelle Willis, the former ace of the World Series winning Florida Marlins, who was sent back to the minor leagues after a blockbuster trade to the Detroit Tigers. Willis was "disabled" by what everyone in the game describes as anxiety/stress disorder. It seems to afflict pitchers who have lost sight of the strike zone after stunning years in the big leagues. Another injury we hear about all the time from the world of baseball is an injury that plagues players who ultimately resort to Tommy John surgery (otherwise known as ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction). Baseball players pull hamstrings, get sent to the 15-day DL (disabled list) with oblique and groin strains, and recently a whole slew of them are having hip surgery to repair torn labrums. I like to think that the designated hitter slot used in the American League is just another tool, like the 15-day and 60-day DL, for managers who have players that just can't field a position, but can hit with power.

Now, take everything I just said about ridiculous and questionable injuries and hear this: The most serious injury in baseball, an injury that absolutely merits time on the DL and precautions of every kind, is injury to the spinal column.

Just tonight, Edison Volquez of the Cincinnati Reds was taken off the mound and out of the game in the first inning because he was experiencing numbness in his fingers. Finger numbness in an infielder might not warrant worry, but numbness in a pitcher who just served a stint on the DL with back spasms is absolutely reason to worry. Volquez isn't the only pitcher to encounter back spasms early in the season. Francisco Rodriguez, one of the best closers in baseball, if not the entire history of baseball, was recently rushed to the hospital after collapsing outside Fenway Park in Boston. K-Rod, who was the biggest acquisition of the New York Mets in the off-season, was having back spasms. K-Rod came out of the scare in the clear and has been on the field throwing fireballs since. However, with Volquez, as was just asked on Baseball Tonight, you have to wonder if the back spasms he previously had and the numbness he now has are connected. It could easily be a bulging disc with nerve impingement.

Having had open spinal surgery recently and knowing what I now do about herniated discs and nerve impingement, I find myself extra sensitive to and cognizant of the baseball players I watch on a weekly basis who either have come back to the game after spinal surgery or who are fighting back ailments that will surely lead them to spinal surgery down the road. By no means am I an expert, but I am a fan with a new appreciation for players who are on the DL or battling their way back from the DL because of back problems.

Last night as I was watching the Cubs and the Manny-less Dodgers square off, I couldn't help but notice at one point the Dodger shortstop made an error that seemed to really irritate him. Why? Because in April of 2008, Rafael Furcal has a microdiscectomy to repair a herniated disc. Fortunately, Furcal did not require a fusion which would have further limited the once rookie-of-the-year's range of motion. Last night wasn't the first time that Furcal has been visibly upset by his inability to make a play. In last year's National League Division Series, Furcal made multiple errors which eventually lead to Shane Victorino of the Philadelphia Phillies giving Furcal a little pep talk while Victorino was the base runner at second. And this was after Furcal said he was 95-100% healthy for the match-up.

Rafael Furcal is only one of a handful of short stops really struggling this season in terms of hitting, but Furcal may be the short stop in Major League Baseball who is struggling the most with fielding. In a lineup that has continued to hammer the ball and win ballgames in the absence of Manny Ramirez, Furcal's inability to get on base as the L.A. leadoff man has not gone unnoticed. He is struggling and there doesn't appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel for Furcal.

Out of the 162 games of the 2008 season, Furcal played in 36 with 4 errors (at least two of them in the NLCS alone). Compare that to his numbers thus far in the 2009 season and he has played in 44 games with 7 errors. That's 44 of the 51 games played by the Dodgers and he appears to be missing even more games now that he's been fighting off what is listed on his profile in my fantasy baseball league as "buttocks pain." Additionally, Joe Torre is being extra careful with his short stop, giving Furcal routine days off. Torre, manager of the Dodgers, says this is out of concern for his "surgically repaired" back. I would be willing to bet that Furcal really needs those routine days off given the strain on his back that the plays he is forced to make at short stop must invoke.

What's unfortunate about players like Rafael Furcal, listed at a generous 5'8" and 180 pounds, is that they don't have the luxury of slipping into a pinch hitting or designated hitter role. Furcal has never hit for power. Despite what the Dodgers may have thought they were going to get out of him (which is quite similar to what they thought they'd get out of Juan Pierre and didn't until this season while he fills in for the suspended Manny), Furcal is a line drive, lay down the bunt and get on base hitter. His speed more than makes up for what he lacks in power and size. At the age of 31 and in his ninth Major League season, Furcal has stolen 262 bases. He may have hit .300 in his first season with the Dodgers and it may appear that he had a .357 average in 2008 when he played in only 36 games, but the truth of the matter is, Furcal is a .285 career average hitter who always had more to offer once on base or while in the field than he ever did at bat. Of the current Dodgers lineup, he is the last person I would choose to DH when L.A. visits an American League team.

I tend to think of myself as a baseball purist and because I despise the DH utilized in the American League, I'm not one for creating positions for guys who can no longer cut it. However, I look at guys like Jim Thome who may not have the leg strength he once did and the ability to field like he did ten years ago, but who is really a decent guy and a good representative of baseball and deserves to keep playing as long as he has something to bring to the game and as long as he enjoys it. There should be more ambassadors of baseball, guys that simply love the game and bring a presence to a clubhouse that is unmatched by any of the up-and-coming guys. Rafael Furcal is that kind of guy and though I don't believe he can no longer cut it, Furcal isn't far from the point where he'll have to make a decision regarding his back and how much he is willing to endure for the sake of fielding his position. Right now he can still steal a base or two.

We all like to see good and decent guys play well and make their mark on the game. These are the guys who aren't on the DL for blisters and guys who would never consider cheating the game they love. It's too bad that there have to be guys like Manny Ramirez, Milton Bradley, Jonathan Papelbon and Alex Rodriguez who steal the limelight and detract from the more humble and equally talented guys like Rafael Furcal, Mike Cameron, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark DeRosa.

The problem with baseball is that guys who submit to going on the DL for a torn toenail make just as much money, if not more, than guys who have major surgeries and work exponentially harder to get back into the game.

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