It's already frustrating enough to be on the disabled list for any reason at all. You end up tiptoeing around the locker room, feeling like a Martian at a Bob Dylan concert. Teammates and coaches pat you on the back, wondering how it is going while being happy they are not the one in the cast with the limp.
Sure, everyone is concerned about you. They saw what happened to put you in that cast (provided it wasn't a kitchen accident). They know what you have done to help the team in the race. But they have business to handle and they can't handle it by talking for hours to you in the training room. Superstition also tells them that injuries that put players on the disabled list are contagious so as they get information, they are looking for one of those painter's masks.
I recently called a Baltimore Orioles-Tampa Bay Rays game in Baltimore. During the news conference with Orioles manager Buck Showalter, he said that "Nick Markakis was a bad patient" and that he meant that as a complete "compliment."
Markakis was the key spark for the Orioles' offense for a hugely important stretch of their season. He was the much-needed leadoff hitter they needed to replace all of the lost productivity from that slot due to injury. Everyone before him (Brian Roberts and Nolan Reimold) was knocked out of action and Markakis rose to the challenge. He came in and put up great numbers, posting a .335 batting average and being on base at a .390 clip from the top spot in the lineup.
Then in trying to get out of the way of a CC Sabathia pitch, Markakis broke a bone in his left thumb. I passed him briefly in the Orioles' locker room hall and saw his disgust. I kept the exchange short because I knew from being on the disabled list during my career, that you don't dwell on it, he is pulling his hair out and there's no need for me to yank harder.
But it is the timing that really sticks the dagger in his heart. The Orioles have been irrelevant for years around this time of the season. Finally, there is life in black and orange. The Orange Express has secured a winning season and the Orioles did it with glue and matchsticks to bolster an injury-plagued rotation and lineup.
Even with all the anger that fills you about being hurt and being unable to play a game that is made up of short careers and long memories, you still have room for guilt. You know there are a lot of elements that are out of your control. Markakis could not steer clear of Sabathia's pitch, any more than Sabathia could use a joystick to control it after it left his hand. Yet that doesn't make a player feel better. You feel an obligation to your team and unless it is the worst-case scenario of a season-ending injury, you are looking for a way to get back on the field.
The big league money doesn't help your conscience, either. Direct deposits and no time to stop by a bank during the season can give you amnesia about the cash flowing in, then all of a sudden you have time on your hands and you realize that each game you are in the whirlpool, you could have bought a new island. It's a good problem to have, but it doesn't make your hand heal any faster.
At one point during my time on the DL with the Rangers, Rafael Palmeiro was creeping up on his 400th career home run. I usually rehabbed at the stadium early in the day so by the time the game started I had been there most of the day. We were cleared to dress in street clothes after a certain time but I kept pushing it off so I could see if Palmeiro hit his 400th homer. After a while, I thought it wasn't going to happen, so one game I got into my street clothes and, of course, he hit it then. I proceeded to run back to my locker, and I put my uniform on over my clothes to meet him in the dugout. I felt like I was just taking up space.
But in a playoff race, you are even more aware of your role and the amount of space you take up. Baltimore has walked the edge all year and to the Orioles' credit they have just kept moving after they were declared null and void after each injury. Markakis could have been the final blow and he may be feeling both pleasantly surprised and disturbingly useless to know the O-train keeps on chugging.
Right now, Markakis needs to be patient. He needs to rechannel the itch he has under his cast and get in the best place he can to help his team. Even if that makes him scarce and out of the way.
You also cannot underestimate a player's awareness of how hard it is to get to the postseason. Sure, there are teams that are always in the race, but with so many years of struggles, Markakis knows that this could be it. Besides facing the career questions of recovering from an injury, you also know that maybe, just maybe, you may never be relevant in September again. You can look at Hall of Famer Jim Rice's career and see that he got hurt in September of 1975 and had to sit out during the Red Sox's race to the World Series. Rice did not see the postseason again until 1986. Stakes are easier now with more postseason slots, but it is not a guarantee, by any stretch. Eleven-year waits usually mean you are now home with a bad back and some good storytelling at Thanksgiving dinner.
It is tough to be on the disabled list at any time. Every day, you go to rehab with the hope that maybe you will return ahead of schedule. But on a team in the thick of the September action, as you watch the excitement and the sheer euphoria of possibility, you feel left behind. You also realize how tired you really are at 8:30 p.m. every night. I used to wonder how I actually played during that time. Whew!
Even so, maybe you will be back soon enough and be a hero. But right now, Markakis needs to be patient. He needs to rechannel the itch he has under his cast and get in the best place he can to help his team. Even if that makes him scarce and out of the way.
It will still make him invent baseball training techniques to use in the batting cage that he can do with one arm. The Orioles will miss his defense, his bat, just about everything, but they will keep moving. Showalter will make sure of it and with experience you learn that no matter what, it is better to have a ring on that you helped earn while sporting a broken hand (as long as you didn't punch the dugout steps), than have another ticket back home before October with both hands in good shape for giving out candy on Halloween.