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Monday, August 17, 2009
Manuel of New York: Medieval Manager

I've been reading Joe Posnanski's new book -- and no, it's not in bookstores yet; being a BBWAA member does have its occasional perks -- and while every page oozes with goodness, there's one story in particular that I must share with you today. It's about Gary Nolan, who won 14 games for the Reds when he was 19 years old, and was out of the majors before he turned 30.

In 1972, when Nolan was still only 24, he might have been the best pitcher in the National League.

Well, probably not. That was the year Steve Carlton went 27-10 with a team that was otherwise 32-87. But Nolan was fantastic. Only problem was that his arm started hurting during the season. Hurt so bad he couldn't stand it. Of course, everybody -- the fans, the players, the manager -- figured Nolan just wasn't tough enough. It hurt so bad, though, that he just couldn't pitch (and would miss nearly all of the next two seasons).

Management's solution?

I knew this happened in the 1930s. Back then, a sore-armed pitcher might have all of his teeth removed (which worked just as well in those days, too). I had no idea it was still happening in the 1970s. In fact, Nolan might the last man who had oral surgery performed to treat a sore arm. I hope so, anyway.

Some of you probably remember a character Steve Martin used to play on Saturday Night Live: Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber (video here). Theodoric would attribute disease to a toad or gnome living inside someone's stomach, and then prescribe a good blood-letting. Until the 1970s, that was still roughly the state of sports medicine, at least when it came to pitchers with sore arms. Happily, we're mostly past those days.

Apparently we're still working on concussions, though. In 1942, Brooklyn Dodgers superstar Pete Reiser -- as was his custom -- slammed into an outfield wall and suffered a terrible concussion. He sat out a few games, and then his manager got him right back into the lineup. Reiser struggled terribly for a month or so, the Dodgers lost the pennant by two games, and I blame Leo Durocher.

Fast-forward 36 years, to 1978. Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans is terribly beaned on the 28th of August. Evans sat out a few games, and then his manager got him right back into the lineup. Evans batted .164 in September and made a bunch of errors. He was having dizzy spells. The Red Sox lost the division title by one game, and I blame Don Zimmer.

Fast-forward 39 years, to 2009. This is what Jerry Manuel said yesterday about an ex-Met and a current Met, and concussions (as recorded by Ken Davidoff):

Actually, Manuel is saying exactly that David Wright is better than Ryan Church. Better at recovering from head trauma. Fortunately, managers these days aren't given as much freedom to destroy people as Durocher and Zimmer once were. David Wright has been placed on the disabled list, and presumably he won't be in the lineup if he's still seeing double or suffering dizzy spells (as Reiser and Evans were).

But managers still are entrusted with too many decisions that are tied to players' health. Too many players are still shamed into playing when they shouldn't. And too many players don't tell anybody when they're hurt, because there's still a stigma attached to injuries that don't include a bone poking through skin.

This attitude undoubtedly is bad for the players. It results in more pain and shorter careers. You might argue that this attitude can sometimes be good for teams, and you'd probably be right. But I can't help thinking that if you could measure everything, you would discover that Major League Baseball's general spirit of machismo does quite a bit more harm than good.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps all those dead arms and skeptical attitudes are exactly what every team needs. Perhaps there needs to be less doctoring and babying and DLing, and more just walking it off until the pain goes away. Perhaps ...