Playing With Pain

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I was living fairly close to Los Angeles in 2008 when a friend from Jacksonville tipped me to the imminent arrival of Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ hot prospect who had been mowing through batters  for the Double A Jacksonville Suns.  As a determined “I’ll believe it when I see it” student of the game, I expected the usual fanfare and flourish followed by this Kershaw fellow’s settling in to a respectable career in Dodger blue.

And then … he turned out to be Clayton Kershaw, the most dominant pitcher in the league and among the most highly esteemed pitchers in the last 25 years.

Kershaw’s been placed on the DL this week, the back strain again, after throwing in the mid 80’s recently.  I wish him every success in his recovery, but it’s unlikely that he will regain the pop in his fast ball.  He has a wicked curve, and with time he might be able to become the Greg Maddux of his generation, an artist, a tactician, but he’ll be a different Clayton Kershaw.

All of which got me thinking about the small number of truly exceptional athletes for whom the second half of their career, the post-injury portion of their career, was superb although less sparkling than it might have been had they remained healthy.  Tiger’s flame-out was spectacular, and his recovery has yet to establish him as a golfer to be feared in every tournament.  It could happen, but he’s clearly not the Tiger of legend … yet.  Peyton Manning survived having his neck bolted together, became a FrankenBronco and took his team to the Super Bowl, but was never really a dominant quarterback again. 

And yet, Buster Posey.  Adrian Peterson. Paul George. Giancarlo Stanton.  Mario Lemieux, Drew Brees, Sue Bird, Lindsey Vonn, all came back to a successful career.

I’m interested in the “what if” conversation about athletes who did recover well, who continued to make the All Star roster, who won championships, who perhaps found an easy path to induction in a Hall of Fame, but whose skills were then merely mortal, and my reflections begin, as might be expected, with Mickey Mantle.

First round Hall of Fame, 12 trips to the World Series, 7 championships, three-time MVP, Triple Crown, third all-time in home runs when he retired (536) … pretty good resume, particularly given what might have been a career-ending injury in the 1951 World Series, at the end of Mantle’s rookie year.  The account of the injury is, literally, the stuff of legend.

Mantle had an impressive rookie year; he was an accomplished fielder, probably the fastest base runner in the game, and hitter with pop who was expected to take over Joe DiMaggio’s role as the Yankee Clipper limped into retirement, an eventuality DiMaggio met with crusty resignation.  Crusty may be an understatement as Dimaggio literally did not speak to Mantle until the second game of the World Series.  Manager Casey Stengel had told Mantle that Dimaggio was fading fast and instructed him to go for every ball hit to right centerfield.  Willie Mays lofted a fly ball, Mantle raced to get it, and there was no doubt he would be in place.  He heard DiMaggio call out that he had the ball and not wanting to run into him, Mantle tried to stop, slammed his foot into an uncovered drain and went down hard.  From the moment he hit the ground it was clear he would not be getting up.  Writhing in agony as his twisted knee was folded at an impossible angle,  Mantle moaned as DiMaggio approached and spoke to him for the first time that season.

“They’re coming with the stretcher, kid.”

Mantle played in pain and at half speed for the next seventeen years, was the face of that Yankee dynasty, and remains one of the iconic ballplayers of his era.  I’m a hopeless Mantle fan, stuck somewhere in the 154 game, 16 ball club version of baseball, and for me, the stats simply do not tell the story.

Athletes play with and through pain; highly conditioned competitors will be injured, most many times over the course of a career.  Some, like Mantle, Tony Romo, Grant Hill play with pain, and some like  Bo Jackson, perhaps the most impressive multi-sport athlete of the modern age, take performance with pain to a new level, popping his own dislocated hip back in its socket, causing necrosis of the hip-joint.  That ended his football career, but he signed with the White Sox after being cut by the Royals until his body finally gave out.

So, Clayton Kershaw the most dominant pitcher of his era, toting his tendon damaged arm, shuffling to the mound with a strained lower back, has a $93,000,000 contract through 2021 with the LA Dodgers.  It’s gonna hurt, but the hope is that we’ll see a craftier, nastier Kershaw not as fast, but worth every penny to a Dodger team aching to climb back to the top of the heap.





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