Major league players are dropping like threes in a Sacramento-Dallas game. Nomar Garciaparra, Mark Ellis, Scott Spiezio and a pitcher a day, it seems, go down with an injury. It is fashionable to say that baseball players are brittle or soft or so explosively wealthy, that they only play when they want to, and won't play hurt. That simply is not true.
Baseball is a hard game played by hard men. When a ball is thrown or hit at speeds that the average person simply can't comprehend, it can break a finger or a hand in an instant. And you simply can't play the game well with a broken bone in a critical part of your body.
Baseball is a game of precision, the ultimate skill sport, it is golf with athleticism and, more important, with a fear factor, and injury potential on virtually every play. A hitter's greatest assets are his hands. If you mess with his hands, his fingers, his wrists, it makes it very difficult to hit. When there's piercing pain when you swing and miss, or hit a ball off the end of the bat, it's virtually impossible to play the game well, especially every day.
There are no tougher guys than football players, but if a linebacker breaks a finger, he can cover it with tape, cover that with padding, then go out and hit someone with his helmet and shoulders. He is not expected to be dexterous, he is not asked to intercept a pass, just tackle someone. "Hands and eyes,'' says Diamondbacks left fielder Luis Gonzalez. "They're the most important things we have. If anything is wrong with them, we're in trouble.''
A pitcher makes his living with his fingers on a baseball. It's a touch thing, it's not hitting someone with your helmet. When a pitcher breaks a finger or has a big, raw blister on his throwing hand, he can't pitch effectively. His game is built around gripping that ball the right way, making the ball move an inch or two more in some direction. He can't do that if his fingers aren't working properly. How often have we heard a pitcher ripped for not pitching with a blister, or with a fingernail that has been torn off? It would be hard to type this story without a fingernail, let alone pitch in a major league game. Yet some big leaguers do it.
As for playing hurt, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter played -- and played well -- most of the postseason last year with a right shoulder that one friend says "is mush. It's amazing he even played.'' Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell's right shoulder hurts "every time I throw.'' Playing catch before a game, his shoulder aches. "I can't spin and make the throw to second (base) anymore,'' Bagwell said. "It really hurts me that I can't make that throw.'' And yet, he will play every game, every day, with that pain. Football players can rest an injury for six days as long as they're ready by Sunday. Baseball players have no time to rest.
Gonzalez's right shoulder hurts every time he throws a baseball. He needs Tommy John surgery, which requires taking a ligament out of some other part of his body, and attaching it to his elbow. It is a surgery that would keep Gonzalez out for a year, but since his elbow doesn't hurt when he swings, he's not opting for surgery. "We've got a good team here,'' he said. "I've got Richie Sexson hitting behind me. I've got Roberto Alomar hitting in front of me. I want to be in the middle of the lineup. I don't want to miss out on that.''
Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell recently missed six spring training games with a sore elbow. It hurts, it needs rest, but it doesn't hurt when he hits. "And how many ground balls a game am I going to get? Four? On a busy day?'' Lowell said. "I can throw four balls a game and not worry about it. It's not like I'm a pitcher. It would be much different then.''
Woody Williams is a pitcher, a good one, a tough one. He was a shortstop in college, and says he might have hit and thrown well enough to make it as a catcher in the big leagues. Last year, he won 18 games, and threw the second most pitches (3,647) in the National League. This winter, his shoulder began to hurt for no apparent reason. His first throwing session this spring was hideous. Monday, he threw a simulated game. Much better. "I'm the only guy in history,'' he said laughing, "who added 20 miles an hour during spring training.''
Imagine throwing 3,647 pitches, and every one hurts. "When I pitched at certain times, it hurt so much, it brought tears to my eyes,'' one pitcher said. Even though there are record numbers of players on the disabled list these days (the influence of agents at work), it's more a function of the difficulty of the game, and skill involved, than the toughness of the players. They're tough, and they play a tough game that cannot be played well when you're hurt.