Sunday, June 24, 2012
Tommy John surgery and the Royals meet Robert Johnson at the crossroad... and the deal goes down
A surprisingly intelligent discussion of the epidemic of Tommy John surgeries on the Kansas City Royals is happening on the Kansas City Star Web site this morning beneath an article about the phenomenon by Sam Mellinger.
The article and the comments pivot on the question of whether the Royals are just victims of very bad luck -- four blown elbows in one year on one staff -- or whether the Royals are mismanaging pitchers. As Mellinger points out, its probably impossible to know which -- or either -- but the question is a perfect debate in a city starved for competent management.
A third cause could be incompetent draft and trade protocols. For a team with little success across a long period of time, eyes naturally focus on the short term rather than the long. You spin the wheel and you takes yer chances. You draft on the basis of what a kid might give you for two or three seasons after a couple of years in the minors. If he gets the big club to .500 for two years then blows out his elbow, fine. Two years winning as many as you lose will hook the fan base back in for a decade of decline.
But, think for a moment beyond the Royals. The pitching arm is one of the most interesting elements of any element in sport. It gives the sport of baseball much of its drama. It provides a novelist's touch to what is otherwise a very long, repetitive and somewhat uneventful season.
Every time an overhand pitcher fires the ball to the plate, he tries to rip his precious arm off his body. That is the long and short of mechanics. Some mechanics are better than others -- some motions more graceful, some more scientific, some more deceptive. But all motions tear at the basic fibers that hold the arm to the body.
Our barely upright ancestors who could no longer throw a rock or a spear for food, died. Today, we visit Dr. Yocum and miss a year on the mound.
Everyone who pitches knows the reality of this. Eventually -- before you are out of high school -- you will realize you cannot lift your arm very high the morning after you pitch. Eventually you will find it nearly impossible to arrange your arm under your head to sleep. Eventually, you will tune into every creak and crack in that precious arm every minute of the day as if you have ear buds wired to it.
Opps. Was that my arm? My shoulder? My elbow? What did I do? Damn, I knew I shouldn't be out here cutting limbs, mowing grass. I knew I shouldn't reach for my kid in that position.
Every pitcher will develop an intimate relationship with his arm. They will talk to each other, plead with each other for one more inning, one more cutter. They'll curse each other. They'll find a medication or a routine that helps them make peace. If they are big time, Dr. Yocum will become their therapist and save their relationship.
But the story line is set. You can find the plot a thousand places in literature but I prefer Robert Johnson's version. You know every time you rock back on the rubber this could be the time, and you make a deal with what you know. You do it anyway. You fling your arm in an insane arc toward the plate because you love seeing the look in a hitter's eye when he's swinging in a different time zone. Because you love the power of the hill, being the center of attention, being in complete control of the motion of the game. Nothing happens until you're ready. When you rock back, all the eyes are on you, everything starts to spin, the next few seconds tell the tale.
Or, if you're very lucky, you do it because it puts food on the table. You have a very short window of time to make all the money you'll need for the rest of your life. You have this gift; you can throw a ball 97 miles per hour, with movement. You will use it.
And that's the deal you make with the devil. For Robert Johnson, it was the ability to find the blues in the frets of a guitar. In this case, which is the beauty of the story line, the devil is human anatomy, it is nothing less than your own personal human anatomy. It is a deal with human DNA, with human evolution, with god. It is a deal you make with yourself.
So it comes down to love or greed and what you're willing to do for either. And, of course, the fragile ulnar collateral ligament.