Injuries don’t just hurt; they threaten the sports themselves

Whining about injuries is lame. No cliché in sports more swiftly induces a more profound wince than the timeless observation that “injuries are part of the game.” That would be for every game, even tiddlywinks.  So, what else is new?

The point of all games, after all, is to overwhelm and subdue the opponent, and if en route you sideline your foe, sorry. People who play games get hurt and must withdraw to lick their wounds. The harder the game, the greater the pain. Live with it and move on. Teams that handle that fundamental reality best invariably win most.

Still, there’s something remarkable about how pervasive the issue has lately become, more and more dominating the discourse. It’s fast becoming a crisis in pro football, where the longterm effects of the wear and tear on combatants suddenly threaten the game with extinction.

If you happened to catch the Nick Buoniconti profile in a recent Sports Illustrated you got a sense of how deeply the physical damage they’ve endured  increasingly terrorizes NFL alumni. And believe me when I tell you, mate, that no tougher dude ever played any game at any time than the tenacious linebacker who captained the only team that ever survived an entire NFL season unbeaten, Mr. Nick Buoniconti, Esquire.

It’s conceivable that soaring compensation claims could cripple the NFL. Don’t laugh. The league is within a couple of highly losable lawsuits of having to face-multi-billion dollar claims, several times the $1 billion-plus they’ve already grudgingly agreed to pay. The burdens on other games, hockey in particular, also mount. Not even relatively genteel soccer is immune.  

And in Baseball, still early in this season, the injury factor begins to look more like a plague. There’s not a team out there with an unoccupied disabled list or trainers not profoundly over-worked. Plausible excuses for failings on the field of play are therefore abundant, as devotees of the Red Sox can attest.

Lost for the duration in Boston is all-star knuckleballer Steven Wright. They’ll be lucky to have David Price, their $31 million-a-year stopper, even half the season. No glimpse yet of Tyler Thornburg, a costly off-season acquisition. Meanwhile Hanley Ramirez and Drew Pomeranz dance on and off the DL, where Brock Holt is nestled at length and where the inscrutable Pablo Sandoval remains inscrutable. If all this doesn’t entirely explain why the team predicted to run away with the pennant labors to stay above .500, it’s probably the reason Manager John Farrell still has a job.

Actually, other teams have been even harder hit. Take the Mets.  They’ve lost ace Noah Syndergaard and closer Jeurys Familia and chronically ailing Captain David Wright, probably for the season, and their mercurial $27 million-a-year slugger Yoenis Cespedes indefinitely, if not longer. Also disabled for varying lengths of time have been Steven Matz, Travis D’Arnaud, Seth Lugo, Wilmer Flores, Brandon Nimmo, and Lucas Duda. More than a third of their roster has been down for the count.  Lighten up Boston, and feel sorry for poor New York.

A week ago, in just a three-day span, the Mets lost Familia to a blood clot,  the Yankees lost Aroldis Chapman for at least a month, the Jays lost Francisco Liriano, their best pitcher, the Dodgers lost Adrian Gonzalez (you remember him), and the Braves lost, for the season, Freddie Freeman, N.L leader in hitting, homers, and RBIs. They joined on the DL a roster of fellow all-stars, including  Robinson Cano, Madison Bumgarner. Felix Hernandez, Mark Melancon, Hunter Pence, Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, Cole Hamels, and Troy Tulowitzki.

It’s really quite staggering, and it’s only May. In that it’s seemingly not as brutal as other games, the striking rise in baseball injuries confounds many. Old-timers insist it’s all about the character of the players – that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s an argument impossible to support with much more than sentiment. Baseball remains a game of little wounds that can be near debilitating. It’s tough to swing a bat with lower-back pain or throw a pitch with a blister.

Still, the alarming explosion of pitchers’ woes – arm injuries, including too many ultimately obliging radical treatments like Tommy John surgery – can’t be lightly dismissed. Never have pitchers been more carefully nurtured, monitored, protected, coddled; yet never have so many ultimately broken down. Old-timers will tell you that’s precisely the problem.

Here’s the way maybe the most knowledgeable of them all, the magnificent Warren Spahn, put it, as told to Fay Vincent in the estimable former commissioner’s dandy book, “The Only Game in Town” (2006).

Said the peerless lefty: “The thing I don’t understand about Baseball today is that guys pitch once a week, they pitch five innings, they don’t pitch in relief, they don’t pitch batting practice. You know, to me your arm is like your legs; you’ve got to use them to keep them in shape. How in the heck can these guys today stay off the disabled list with what little throwing they do? Everything today is predicated on preventing a sore arm with a five-man rotation and counting the pitches. Well, we got more sore arms now than we ever had in history. And it’s because pitchers never get their arms in shape.”

Spahnie shared that wisdom over a decade ago and he’s gone now.  But, with this ultimate craftsman and winner of 363 games, who’s about to argue?