Imagine a baseball season in which all of these stars were missing from action: Jose Canseco, Kirk Gibson, Dave Winfield, Bo Jackson, Dwight Gooden, Andre Dawson, George Brett, Dennis Eckersley, Willie McGee, Mike Greenwell, Eric Davis. Mark McGwire, Danny Jackson, Alan Trammell, Ken Griffey Jr., Andy Van Slyke, Jack Morris and Greg Swindell. Actually, you don't have to imagine it, because it has been happening this year. All over North America, people have been looking out onto the field and asking, "Where's Mickey Tettleton?" Or, "Where's Barry Larkin?"
They're on the disabled list. In fact, baseball is going DL in a hand basket. What we're watching is the disabling of the game itself. If 1981 will forever be known as "the strike year," then 1989 deserves to go down as "the stricken year." Clubs are paying big money to the stars, and fans are shelling out lots of their own money to see them, but the best seat in the house is probably in the trainer's room.
So far this season 281 players have been placed on the disabled list, 166 in the American League and 113 in the National League (chart, page 24). Extrapolating those figures to the end of August—players injured in September are not usually placed on the DL—the major leagues will have 304 disabling injuries, a 13.4% increase over last season I and the highest total in six years. The ailments range from the heartbreaking I (Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky fracturing his left arm last week after his miraculous comeback from cancer surgery) to the vaguely comic (Pirate pitcher Brian Fisher lacerating his arm last spring on a miniature golf putter that snapped while he was leaning on it). But there's really nothing funny about the plethora of injuries, which seems to be reaching epidemic proportions.
And it's not so much the quantity of injuries that's alarming, but the quality of the players involved. Last year's National League MVP, Gibson, punched out midway through the season with a hamstring and knee injury, while the American League MVP, Canseco, didn't punch in until after the All-Star break because of a fractured bone in his wrist. The No. 2 men in each league's Cy Young voting last year, Danny Jackson and Eckersley, went down for extended periods, as did the two Rookies of the Year, Chris Sabo and Walt Weiss. At one time or another, nine MVPs (Canseco, Gibson, Dawson, McGee, Guillermo Hernandez, Brett, Keith Hernandez, Jim Rice and Fred Lynn) and four Cy Young Award winners (Gooden, Guillermo Hernandez, Bruce Sutter and Ron Guidry) were out. Even more significant, eight of the top 12 finishers in last year's AL batting race (Greenwell, Win-field, Paul Molitor, Kent Hrbek, Trammell, Canseco, Johnny Ray and Brett) and eight of the top 13 hitters in the NL (Dawson, Gerald Perry, Mark Grace, Larkin, McGee, Kal Daniels, Gibson and Van Slyke) have been on the DL.
"Some of the more talented, exciting, entertaining and productive players are kept out of the lineup and out of the view of the fans," says Royals general manager John Schuerholz. "The more those kinds of guys are injured and not able to play, the more it damages the full beauty of a baseball team."
"Injuries are absolutely the deciding factor in the pennant race," says Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda. His team has fallen from first place last year to fifth this season, largely because of its National League-leading 17 disablements. (The Tigers lead the majors with 20, which helps to explain why they've gone from second to seventh.)
The American League East has been ridiculed all year because the top teams have been flirting with .500; but the mediocrity is understandable, considering that the Brewers and Yankees have each had 14 players on the DL, the Orioles 13, the Red Sox 11, and the Blue Jays and Indians 10 each. By contrast, the most surprising teams in the National League, Houston and Chicago, have had only five and seven DL players. Says Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn, "I don't know if the standings in our division have been impacted by injuries because so many teams have been hurt. They might not be any different if everybody had stayed well. But the caliber of play has definitely been hurt."
Why all the carnage? There is no one answer, but theories range from not enough conditioning to too much conditioning to too much air-conditioning, and from not enough red meat to too much red meat. Most of the debates about baseball injuries are old school versus new school. Red Sox manager Joe Morgan, for instance, blames the problem on spoiled children. "I don't think kids today work like they used to," he says. "I'm talking about kids who are eight and 10 years old, even six years old. I'm not talking about jobs, I'm just talking about work—chores, errands, things in the house. Kids haven't worked like that for a long time, and you can see it when they grow up."
That slightly Neanderthal opinion aside, there are any number of legitimate reasons for the preponderance of injuries in baseball:
•Doctors in the House. Because of medical advances and better-educated trainers, injuries that might have gone undetected are now being treated. According to Texas pitching coach Tom House, "I pitched for a year with a leg that hurt so bad I could hardly stand on it. But they said play. They would not do that today. If you want to blame the increase in injuries on something, blame it on the increase in diagnostic capabilities." Says Blue Jay trainer Tommy Craig, "Trainers are a little more qualified today. We're just better at picking up on an injury in the early stages before it turns into something that might make the guy miss the rest of the season or threaten his career."
•Protecting the Investment. Simply put, with so much money at stake, clubs are not willing to risk a long-term investment for a short-term gain. In another era, for instance, the Mets might have sent Gooden out there with his tired right arm, but he is one of their most valuable assets, and should be for years to come. "If you're management, you're going to play it more conservatively," says House. "You're going to put a guy on the disabled list quicker."
The flip side to that argument is that it's the player who's unwilling to risk his future financial well-being. Says former Yankee manager Dallas Green, "When we played, we were afraid of losing our job if we stayed on the DL too long. Now players go on the DL, and you can't send them down. And they've got a guaranteed contract for the next three years, so they're going to get paid anyway, and they're not risking anything."
That leads to the next argument...
•The Wimp Factor. The old school says that players just don't play hurt anymore. "Now I know this isn't going to sit well with some people," says Chicago Cub manager Don Zimmer, "but there's just too many small injuries that keep players out of the lineup these days. I've heard guys in the last 10 years say, "I've got a head cold. I can't play today.' What does that mean? You tell me a guy can't play with a head cold?"
Brewers trainer John Adam begs to differ: "I hate to hear people say today's players don't play hurt. We've got guys who play hurt all the time. I'll put them up against anybody. People wouldn't say that about players if they still made $25,000 a year. But it's only natural when you pay a lot of money for tickets, and the guy you come to see says he can't play because he's hurt. Good for the old-timers, but was it smart to play every day back then with broken fingers and things like that?"
Does anyone want to tell Cal Ripken Jr., who moved into third on the alltime list last week for playing his 1,208th consecutive game, or Gibson, one of the guys who has been on the DL twice this year, that today's players are wimps?
•Too Much or Not Enough? Many baseball people feel that the players overdo off-season conditioning. "Maybe they ought to let their bodies rejuvenate," says Schuerholz. "Maybe there ought to be more down time for muscle fibers and tissues and ligaments and tendons and all that. I was kidding with Brooks Robinson and Frank Malzone the other day in the pressroom. I said, 'We're going to institute the same kind of workout program with our guys this winter that you guys used.' And they belly-laughed because they did nothing, absolutely nothing."
Says Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, "Mickey Mantle didn't lift weights. Hank Aaron never lifted weights. Willie Mays never lifted weights. And they didn't have any problems hitting homers." Herzog is particularly sensitive about the subject because his own centerfielder, McGee, embarked on a weight-training program in the off-season and has missed a total of 83 games this season with a variety of injuries.
"There has been a very inappropriate emphasis on bulk-weight development," says Schuerholz. "That is to say, looking good in a T-shirt, looking good in a bathing suit, looking good in a baseball uniform. While that may have some short-term benefit to a particular player, I think it is debilitating in the long-term, because baseball muscles have to be long and flexible. They should not be shortened. They should not be tightened."
Some knowledgeable observers think that the ligaments and tendons simply cannot carry the increased bulk. "With the overload of muscle mass," says Trebelhorn, "there's a tendency for the ligaments and tendons not to develop elasticity and flexibility necessary to support the added bulk. There's a conscious plan of weight training but not a conscious plan of maintaining the full range of baseball motions."
Sports physicians feel that the problem with weight training is that while many players build up the muscles that increase the acceleration of their arms, far fewer players bother with the muscles that govern deceleration. "Most of the injuries are overload, overuse injuries: shoulder, back, hamstring," says Ben Kibler, an orthopedic surgeon at the Lexington (Ky.) Clinic of Sports Medicine. "Microtears occur in the deceleration phase, and those tears lead to muscle weakness, so the muscles can no longer regulate the huge force that's created during throwing. I advocate weight training very strongly. But too often you see players who are Cadillacs in front, for acceleration, and Volkswagens in back, for deceleration."
Nowadays, nearly every team employs a strength coach, because it is clear that weight training can be beneficial if done correctly. But Pirate strength coach Warren Sipp admits that even the professionals haven't mastered the mysteries of baseball. "We're still on a shakedown cruise," he says. Perhaps injuries will decrease as baseball learns more about conditioning. Right now, the dangers appear to be equal to the benefits.
One thing Kibler prescribes is a rethinking of baseball's traditional warmup period. While most clubs have stretching exercises before batting practice, the players negate the benefits by sitting idle before the game—up to an hour and a half for home teams, an hour for visiting clubs. "The turf is 115 degrees," he says. "Then they go into an air-conditioned clubhouse and are in a sitting position for an hour. Then they go out, and they're no more loose than if they never did anything at all. There would be nothing wrong even if they did some stretching in the fifth inning of long night games."
•Artificiality. Yeah, yeah, artificial turf. The funny thing is that even though there is a larger percentage of artificial surfaces in the National League (6 of 12 stadiums) than in the American League (4 of 14), players in the latter seem to be more affected by the turf, because they can't get used to it. Says Adam, "When we play back-to-back series on artificial turf, it's triage in the trainer's room. They just line up. I'd like to have all our games on grass."
However, Doc Ewell, the trainer emeritus of the Astros and a man who used to tape Joe DiMaggio's ankles, maintains that artificial turf is better. "I was the first trainer to have to deal with AstroTurf," he says, "and only a couple of times have I seen an injury actually caused by the turf. You eliminate sprinkler heads, wet grass and the chances of your feet slipping out from under you. In the overall picture, I would much prefer turf over grass."
In any case, some brands of artificial turf are clearly better than others, and clubs would be doing baseball a great service if they installed state-of-the-art surfaces every few years.
Another artificial culprit blamed for the rash of pitching injuries is the aluminum bat. Says Cleveland pitching coach Mark Wiley, "It could be something as simple as aluminum bats in high school and college. Pitchers don't get as much positive feedback from their fastballs [because of cheap hits], so they start throwing more breaking stuff, and that hurts their arms."
•The Man Shortage. Right now baseball is playing a man short; even though a 25-man roster is in effect, every team carries only 24 players. This was done to hold down costs and to teach the Players Association a lesson. But that 25th man could be a pitcher who saves wear and tear on the arms of the other pitchers, or a position player who might give another player a much-needed rest.
•If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Seattle. One of the reasons the American League has more injuries per team is its insane schedule. Every team has some bizarre road trip, but consider what the Mariners had to go through this year. They flew from Seattle to Boston for a series May 23-25, to Milwaukee May 26-28 and to New York May 29-31, then back to Seattle for a game on June 1—and they didn't have an off day until June 8. The Orioles recently went through a killer road trip: Baltimore to Oakland to Minnesota to Kansas City to Boston to Baltimore in a 14-game, 14-day swing that had them playing a day-night double-header in Fenway.
•Get Me A Plate of Chicken-Fried Steak, Will Ya? Herzog maintains that players didn't have as many muscle pulls in the old days, partly because they ate hot dogs and red meat and not as much chicken as they do today. Nutritionists might argue with that, and, indeed, many clubs employ them.
But walk into any major league clubhouse after a game, and you will see an array of food that would have made the late Colonel Sanders blanch. The food is provided by clubhouse men, who are only following the wishes of the players. Maybe a sign ought to be posted above each clubhouse door: YOU PLAY WHAT YOU EAT.
Syd Thrift, the Yankee general manager, has some ideas on the subject of injuries: "I suspect what we have to look at is a combination of conditioning and nutrition. We also ought to look into equipment innovations—different shoes for different surfaces. Catchers could use a knee brace similar to the ones in football so they can withstand the crash blocks on the side—look at what happened to Mike LaValliere. And what about pepper? I see signs preventing it, but I always thought it was useful.
"But these are just opinions and theories. We need facts. We must find ways to reduce the number of DL days in a 162-game schedule. I've asked the last three commissioners for a research and development program to find a way to prevent injuries. I know of no billion-dollar business that doesn't have one."
Such a study might be a start. In the meantime, baseball might want to think about the following:
1) Restoring the 25-man roster.
2) Drawing up a schedule with humanity in mind. Perhaps the number of games should be reduced.
3) Discouraging those card games in air-conditioned clubhouses just before game time.
4) Scrutinizing weight-training programs more closely.
5) Conducting annual inspections of artificial surfaces.
6) Putting Cal Ripken Jr. on the spring training lecture circuit.
Actually, Ripken does have sensible ideas about staying in the lineup: "It's no great secret. I like to say I take care of myself year-round. You don't ever have to worry about getting into shape if you never get out of shape. If you have a sore arm, don't throw balls from the hole in batting practice. If you have a sore hamstring, don't run extra. A lot of it has to do with common sense."
Clearly, something should be done if baseball is to head off the Big Hurt. Reds fans are paying to see Barry Larkin, Paul O'Neill and Danny Jackson, but instead they're getting Jeff Richardson, Rolando Roomes and Mike Roesler. Sooner or later, Cincinnati—and all of baseball—will feel it at the box office. The fans will simply get tired of asking, "Where's Kirk Gibson?" or "Where's Bo Jackson?"