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Hard Times and Injuries

The feeble fading Rays -- is there a doctor in the stands?

By 7.24.12

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Bugger! My team, the Tampa Bay Rays, has fallen on hard times after a fast start. My sainted, widowed mother will turn 94 next month. But she's more sprightly than the Rays' offense, which now considers scoring one run a night's work.

The Rays lost two of three this weekend to the Seattle Cumquats. A team so weak as to be one of the few teams in the bigs not either leading its division or in competition for a wild card spot (or one of the new not so wild card slots -- perhaps this new entry should be called the not entirely domesticated card). The Cumquat pitcher who held the anemic Rays to one run on four hits over eight innings on Sunday entered the game with a 6.06 ERA. Against Rays hitters he looked like he was holding a one-way ticket to Cooperstown.

It's not their own pitching but non-hitting that is giving the Rays their first shot at last place since 2007. Rays with plate punch have been falling like an infantry platoon in hot combat. Slugger Evan Longoria went down May 1 with a hamstring tear (how's that for a baseball May Day?) and may not be back until late August. Since then both Luke Scott and Matt Joyce, the big boppers counted on to take up the slack in Longoria's absence, have spent time on the DL (accompanied there by a host of lesser Rays).

After a hot start, Carlos Pena is struggling below the Mendoza line. He's on a path for more than 200 strikeouts this year. Carlos is a great guy, and has given Rays fans some great moments. But this year he has raised leaving runners on base to an art form.

The Rays tried to plug the offense hole by picking up Hideki Matsui from the baseball encore store for a case of Gator-Aid and a ballgirl to be named later. They got about value for purchase price. Godzilla ended business Sunday by popping up with the winning runs on base. He's now hitting .147, less even than his high school weight. My sources in Tokyo tell me Japan is prepared to trade him for a utility gaijin to be named later.

In Joe Heller's darkly comic novel Catch-22, one of the airmen, Dunbar by name, tries to extend his life by cultivating boredom. If he's still around, Dunbar might achieve eternity this year by watching the Rays try to score runs.

All these injuries are a mystery to me. And it's not just the Rays with an unseemly number of baseball invalids. The problem extends across the 30 Major League teams. The Boston Red Sox have had so many injuries this year that Blue Cross Blue Shield will no longer return their calls.

It seems that more guys are being injured today than in previous decades. Assuming I'm correct about the frequency, why should this be so? Players today are bigger, stronger, train all year, have better diets, and are surrounded by all manner of physicians, trainers, and other technicians dedicated to keeping players (and the considerable investments in them) sound. Today's players are pampered to an extent previous generations of competitors would consider unmanly. They spend more time in the weight room than they do in saloons. Yet today's players are forever tearing this and that or straining the other. Some DLs today are almost as long as the active roster. In today's clubhouse you are more likely to encounter an MRI machine than a case of cold beer. 

Why should this pampered lot be falling out more often than back in the day when players sat directly on their back sides all winter when not hunting, bowling, or going to the fridge for another beer? Eisenhower era players reported to spring training 20 pounds overweight, and then trained on beer and cigarettes, with frequent all-nighters at local watering holes.

There's a story, which may or not be apocryphal, that on the first day of a spring training long ago, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra asked the clubhouse guy for two size 7 3/4 baseball caps. The clubhouse guy said, "Yogi, you know you wear a 7 ½ cap." Yogi is said to have replied, "Yea, but I'm not in shape yet." Today's players have to report in shape and at the correct weight or risk fines or worse. 

Baseball is a demanding game, over a punishing 162-game season. But all this infirmity among well-conditioned young men is a puzzlement. For my money the last two words of the national anthem are still, at least in the summer, "Play Ball!" But are there enough guys out there sound enough to answer the call?

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.