It’s often the case that sportswriters are in the business of creating metaphors. Certainly, there’s plenty of work to be done with regards to reporting the day’s events, at least until the robots take over. But eventually, given the cyclical nature of sports, writers are tasked with making those events mean something. In the old days, this was done by converting athletes into avatars, heroic young men who represented their adopted hometowns, and whose accomplishments on the field added to the local lore. Recently, those familial bonds have weakened, and writers have been forced to become more creative in their meaning-making.
One element of baseball nearly untouched by this narrative shift is the injury. The tale of Kerry Wood isn’t much different than that of Gary Nolan, at its roots. Injuries are a part of the game, and yet they feel somehow unnatural, defacing what should be a predictable career arc. They can destroy the best intentions of the craftiest of general managers, or reduce a star player to a cheerleader.
What’s fascinating about injuries is that they’re a symbol for both strength and weakness, a duality, “like all really successful metaphors,” as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 work Illness as Metaphor. Sontag devoted her attention to the disparate legacies of the great diseases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: tuberculosis and cancer. As she declares in her introduction, “illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking”. In baseball – and I understand the dangers of using the same metaphoric instinct in connecting the two – injury is much like illness, treated as something more than itself.
Much as disease is the harbinger of old age and inevitable death, injury is a failure of the body. And yet, there is glory in injury. The annals of baseball history are filled with men who overcame their injuries and their pain: Schilling bleeding into his sock, Gibson limping around the basepaths. The player who fights through his pain is treated as heroic; masculinity demands that they ignore and even hide their injuries, even to the detriment of their own team. There is no duplicity in this; each player is convinced that no injury can stop him, just as he must convince himself that every slump is about to end. Much like cancer patients who are shielded from the realities of their illness by well-meaning doctors, the first cure for any disease, as with any injury, is positive thinking. “A happy man won’t get the plague”, goes the proverb, but the dangerous subtext to this philosophy is that those who do suffer must share at least some of the responsibility.
The key to the glory of injury is that it must be painful without being debilitating. Perhaps this is why, with the exception of Schilling’s sock and a few other rare examples, the glorious injuries always belong to the hitters. The hitter complains of his hamstrings, breaks an unidentifiable bone in his wrist, and still manages to make the violent, split-second swing that brings victory. Pitchers have no such luck. Like cancer, the pitcher’s ailment is unseen, insidious, terrifying. A man can be perfectly happy and healthy, wielding pinpoint mechanics, and a single pop in the elbow or shoulder can end it immediately. Such occurrences are the natural target for dread, and the player is quickly shuttled away, exiled from his former family, to the wasteland of rehab and extended spring training. His life, the camaraderie and routine so carefully fashioned, is torn away in ragged fashion.
Perhaps the most striking and somber characteristic of injury, as with illness, is its ability to corrupt the identity of its victim. We see it in Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, who watches himself die in public before going through the actual process; Kafka’s cockroach goes through his own labrum issues in the Metamorphosis. Those players whose body parts fail them become those body parts: Tony Saunders became a broken arm, Tommy John a ligament.
Perhaps no recent player has lost control over his own identity more so than Mike Hampton, whose body disintegrated after signing an 8-year, $100 million contract. Hampton became a symbol for disappointment, his salary a yoke on multiple franchises. He underwent Tommy John surgery, tore an oblique, tore another elbow tendon, pulled a hamstring, strained a pectoral muscle, and tore his rotator cuff. He said of his infamous contract:
“It’s unfortunate,” Hampton said. “I’ve thought about it quite a bit. Shoot, when I sign a big contract, I want to be underpaid, not overpaid. Even though I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked to have been, it wasn’t from a lack of trying or lack of work or lack of want. I did everything in my power to be on the field and help my team win a World Series. I can look in the mirror and face the guy looking back and know he’s telling the truth.”
Hampton became a perpetual joke despite working just as hard as any other person to succeed and earn his salary. We tend to assume that because a ballplayer makes a certain amount of money, he cannot feel the pain of his injury, the loss of being able to do what he loves. Instead fans feel as though their money has been stolen, as though the player should lose that, too. They deserve it for failing the team. The weakness of the flesh has become a weakness of the spirit, malevolent and blameworthy.
Nowhere is the contagion of disease more glaring than when the ailment is psychological. Here’s Sontag’s metaphor breaks down; she speaks of insanity as the modern equivalent of consumption, with romantic souls shipped off to sunny climes to relax and breathe the salt air. Baseball, despite its emerald fields and warm spring evenings, is hardly a restorative place. It’s a world of machismo and spitting and dirt, of single-minded purpose and execution. Thinking is left for the analysts. So when a player succumbs to psychological issues, his exile is doubly damning; it’s seen as being by choice. Zack Greinke, speaking about his battle with social anxiety, commented that “depression is still a four-letter word.” It’s easy to think back on the spiral of Henry Skrimshander from Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, whose identity is not only altered by his injury, it is completely erased. His exile has made him unutterable, non-existent.
This is exactly the sentiment that Sontag was worried about: that illness and injury leads people to blame the person for their own suffering. Injuries are frightening and unpredictable; it’s human nature to ascribe some cause to them, something we can control or at least understand. It drives us to clutch at correlation, argue over the inverted W and the pitch count the training regimen, excessive or nonexistent. By rationalizing the suffering of others, we explain away the possibility that it may someday arrive for us. We blame the player for failing to live up to our expectations, the achievements we have awarded him in advance.