I was having dinner Tuesday night in Boston with some hockey writers covering the Stanley Cup finals. The talk turned to the big deal the media made about Chris Bosh playing through Game 3 of the NBA Finals after he got poked in the eye. The hockey guys found this a little amusing considering Vancouver's Manny Malholtra had just returned to the Canucks lineup after taking a puck to the face in March and suffering an eye injury that nearly ended his career. Two surgeries later, he's playing with a detached retina, a badly swollen eye and a face guard.
"I think where Jason might have erred was the comment that he made, 'I'm not coming back until it doesn't hurt anymore.' That has a tendency to rub people the wrong way," Jones told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And we understand where he's coming from -- he wants to be healthy when he plays, so he can go out and give himself the best opportunity to be successful. I get that.
"What Jason needs to realize is that Jason at 80 percent is a force, and Jason at 80 percent is better than a lot of people in this league. And that there are a bunch of his teammates that are out there playing with discomfort and not healthy, and still going at it."
Jones, of course, is playing through two bad knees. He has a torn meniscus in his right knee that required a cortisone shot in May and tore the ACL in his left knee last August. Needless to say, he's not exactly at 100 percent of optimal health. On the other hand, Chipper has made more than $140 million in his career while Heyward is making barely more than the league minimum. It's understandable that he might not want to risk his long-term health and play if he's injured. Certainly this is where the Braves' training staff is involved in making the right decision along with Heyward, the manager and the front office.
But Chipper's public statements don't help the perception that baseball players are a little soft. The daily injury roll call that teams now submit can be a little, umm, interesting. Players missed games yesterday because of a sore ankle, neck spasms, back tightness and a bruised quad. They've missed games with head colds and sore left sides.
One of the hockey writers told me about seeing a player following the final game of a playoff series this year, crumpled up in pain in the trainer's room, tears coming from his eyes. San Jose Sharks All-Star Joe Thornton played through the postseason with a separated shoulder. Hockey players will take pucks to the face, get stitches in the middle of the game, and return. Baseball players will foul a ball off their foot and leave the game.
Now, does this mean baseball players are soft? Hockey players, after all, are a little nuts. But there's little doubt that Chipper Jones was directly calling out Heyward's toughness. I don't think there's any other way to interpret his comments.
Baseball is a long grind, and missing a day here or there is OK in the big scheme of things. And often the smart approach to take. But I'm sure Chipper isn't the only old-timer questioning Heyward right now. Are baseball players not as tough as they used to be? There's not really a good way to check this, but I went back to 1962 (the advent of the 162-game schedule) and checked all players who played at least 160, 155 and 150 games each season. In theory, if more players are missing time now with sore shoulders or back tightness or oblique strains, we'd see fewer players reaching those thresholds.
Guess what? It's basically unchanged over 50 years. Here are selected samples:
The totals are a little higher in 1962, although that might be an expansion-year effect. The three highest totals for 150-plus game players came in 1962, 1977 and 1998, all expansion seasons. But the 2010 totals of 1.3 players per team playing 155-plus games and 2.5 playing 150-plus games are right in line with historical totals.
Now, I'm not sure if that answers the question whether baseball players are soft, but it does tell me that they're just as tough or durable as they've always been.