The Cleveland Indians are in first place at 12-4. This wouldn’t matter to me normally. But the Indians are 12-4 on the back of a vigorously healthy Travis Hafner. Grady Sizemore just returned to the lineup after seven years on the disabled list. Matt LaPorta might not suck after all. And Carlos Santana far from sucks. There’s something compelling, and dare I say, inspiring about this mix of resurrected corpses and fresh-faced infants tearing up the American League, right? How long before Omar Vizquel hangs up his White Sox hat and heads out East to rejoin the party in Cleveland?
I had no idea that Seven Years in Tibet was based on Grady Sizemore’s career. He should’ve let some people know he was lighting out for the territories. And it’s nice of Hafner to show up the year after everybody stopped drafting him in fantasy baseball leagues.
The Indians right now seem to embody one of the mysteries of baseball: injuries. There are the obvious injuries that can gum up a career, but more common probably are the kind of injury that are barely detectable. Some fiber of shoulder muscle might be weak enough to keep Grok from Grokking, but not enough to keep him from starting. There are a couple of things that I’ve learned about baseball with age. One, deception is the most important part of pitching. Two, injuries (and the greatest injury of all: aging) are just about the most important factor in the makeup of a good baseball team.
Both of these tenets are difficult to detect, and they are boring. But they explain why Greg Maddux was great.
I am not quite comfortable with calling aging the “greatest injury of all.” I have a feeling many of our readers who exist outside the scope of professional baseball will not appreciate that sentiment. Anyway, I’m intrigued by injuries as a factor in team success and a measure of player value.
Some word problems that you don’t need to answer:
1. The Green Bay Packers lost their starting running back Ryan Grant early in the 2010-11 season, and yet they went on to win the Super Bowl. Could that happen in baseball with a similarly valuable player?
2. Intelligent people who make careers out of evaluating the relative merits of baseball players are quick to point out that like a sharp batting eye and a strong throwing arm, the ability to not get hurt (durability) is a skill. This is why a guy like Sizemore, for example, is not as good as he seems. Do you buy this premise?
It’s hard to deny that certain players are more affected by lingering and recurring injury problems than others (i.e. Rafael Furcal). But isn’t there also a spiritual or karmic or at the very least luck-oriented side of all this? Isn’t this why we call them “freak injuries?”
My response, in math quiz form:
1. Winning is relative, obviously, in that if you lost a player on a great team, it might become a very good team, which would still be better than a simply good team. I think the team question is a lot more complicated than the individual question. Individual performance is graded in such analytical terms these days that the tendency is to say, well, he’s good or he’s bad for this reason and that reason. But a guy like Hafner reminds me, at least, that there’s not a sort of numbers-based reason that he’s been crummy. It’s a human thing: a confluence of muscle fibers and tendons and psychology worthy of the chaos theory. I don’t know what I’m getting at. We all know that life is complicated.
2. I do buy the premise that some guys get hurt more than others, yeah. Those are the heartbreakers, because the fans among us think that faith can out-duel probability. Like right now Indians fans are feeling pretty convinced that Sizemore will be the story of the year. He’ll come back and lead the World Series parade down whatever the main street in Cleveland is. But the odds are that he won’t. He’ll probably get hurt again. The odds always win given enough time. My dad taught me that (not in a gambling way, in a middle school math way) and he’s much smarter than me.
Question is, does it matter? Does the mystery of injury have anything to do with being a baseball fan, besides the mere presence or absence of a player in the lineup? In other words, what does a simple fan do with the mystical veil of injury?
Let’s be honest here, we have no idea what the simple fan does with the veil of injury. I’m not even sure what the veil of injury is. But all fans are affected by the mysterious ways of injuries. When a player is limping along, ineffective, grimacing, tragic, it’s the fans who are forced to sit and watch and pity him. When a star like Grady Sizemore goes down with a seven-year ligament tear, it’s an act of urban blight: another factory shuttering its windows and lettings its remaining employees go, another light on the Cleveland skyline turned out, another devastating blow to that city’s poor sports fans.
What I’m saying is, the mystery of injury has everything to do with being a baseball fan. Especially a baseball fan like you or me. We live for the narrative. And think about all the great baseball storylines defined by injury. Think about Mickey Mantle’s knees or Sandy Koufax’s arm or poor Herb Score’s face. Injuries are as much a part of the games as home runs and strike outs.
And this, my friends, is why the Cleveland Indians will finish in fourth place in the AL Central this season.