Mike Piazza's eyes seemed to roll in the back of his head after Roger Clemens beaned him with a 92 mph fastball in 2000, as the Mets' trainer and manager Bobby Valentine rushed out of the dugout to aid the catcher. Piazza was hauled off the field, clearly in distress, and the media covering the event waited for word of the severity of his injury.
Several innings passed before the announcement came in the Yankee Stadium pressbox: Piazza had suffered a "slight concussion." While none of the gathered reporters were actually accredited medical personnel, there was prevailing conjecture that the phrase "slight concussion" probably did not appear in any medical textbook.
This was just another example of how injuries are described by teams in terms meant to minimize, gloss over, or even deceive -- a practice that is becoming more prevalent, according to some executives around baseball. "You're talking about affecting your competitive advantage or a player's market value," said an AL official.
Baseball has not reached the absurdity of the National Hockey League, where ailments are sometimes described as an upper body injury or lower body injury. "But I don't think we're very far from reaching that point," said the official.
Managers are concerned that in detailing injuries precisely, they might reveal to the other team that a player may not be available for a forthcoming game. "Why should another team know that we only have 22 players who can be used, rather than 25?" said one official. "And suppose a hitter has a hand injury and we announce that, exactly -- it's an invitation for an opposing pitcher to throw inside."
Many players don't want their precise medical information revealed, feeling it could hurt them when they might be involved in a trade or looking for a job in free agency. Several years ago, a prominent pitcher failed a physical with an American League team because of a potentially serious problem in his arm, information that did not get out -- and the reliever has since signed big-dollar contracts with two other teams. "You don't want to hurt the player as he tries to make a living," said one NL executive.
There are favored vague phrases often used because they are imprecise, others that are specifically avoided, and rules that are followed.
Inflammation: A pitcher could have a microscopic tear, a huge gash in the rotator cuff, or his arm could have fallen off altogether, and there will be inflammation involved. "It's one of my favorites to use," said an AL executive, "because it tells the writers something and, at the same time, it tells them nothing."
Tendinitis: Like inflammation, it says something and says nothing. Tendinitis is a symptom, rather than the source of the problem; it's like saying a player has a runny nose, rather than addressing why he has a runny nose. "You say a player has tendinitis and what might really be going on is that he has loose cartilage in his knee," said one executive. "You say a pitcher has tendinitis, and it might be that he's got a serious tear. When you get right down to it, tendinitis could cover any number of things."
Strains and sprains: A strain or a sprain, in actuality, is a tear. If a team announces that a pitcher has a strained elbow, what they are probably saying, in effect, is that there is a tear in the ligament. "But you never want to use the word 'tear', " said an NL official. "That word is too alarming, especially when you're talking about a high-profile player. If you say 'slight strain,' it provides some information, and buys you some time as your doctors are doing more evaluations on the injury."
Back spasms: Could be a simple strain. Could be something more serious than that, such as a bulging or herniated disc, or some sort of nerve problem. But back spasms makes it sound much more benign. "I take it one step further," said an AL official. "I say, 'Back strain.' That's a very handy catch-all when it comes to back problems."
Flu-like symptoms: The actual problem might be the player has an intestinal issue that causes him to sprint to the bathroom every two or three minutes, and makes taking the field potentially embarrassing. "You don't want to announce that he's got diarrhea," said one executive, "because that'll just humiliate him. Flu-like symptoms covers it." And it's a phrase that covers more mysterious injuries, such as when a player might not feel like taking the field because he's a little weary or perhaps had a few too many brews the night before.
Tightness or stiffness: See inflammation and tendinitis. "Those might be the most handy words of all, because when you get down to it, what the hell do they mean?" one official asked, before answering his own question. "Nothing."
Slight: Probably the most common word used in the description of injuries, employed by teams in almost every circumstance except when body parts are lying on the field. Said another executive: "The question is: How can we present this in the best possible light without lying outright?"
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.