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  • Phthursday Musings: Baseball and Maximum Effort

Phthursday Musings: Baseball and Maximum Effort

I’ve had a couple of different baseball related posts in mind. I was going to publish one on Opening Day but I was trying to do too much and it got away from me. We’ve already taken in a couple of games this year in Chicago and Milwaukee and I have some thoughts about those. And I also want to weigh in on the big controversy of the day in baseball.

But, you know, y’all aren’t all big baseball fans, so I also try to figure out how to write about this silly game in a way that is still interesting for everyone. So I’m going to kind of write this upside down a little and start with the big controversy and how I think it fits in with everything else and how it’s about baseball but it’s also about family and about the strange times we live in.

I’m borrowing these two descriptive sentences from Johns Hopkins:

  • A UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) is a ligament on the inner side of your elbow that helps secure your elbow joint.

  • Some people, typically athletes who play throwing sports, may experience UCL tears that may need surgical repair.

In 1974, a left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers named Tommy John tore his UCL. The team surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, performed an experimental surgery, replacing the torn left UCL with a tendon from John’s right forearm. John returned to pitch in 1976, eventually retiring in 1989, 26 years after debuting. The UCL replacement is now called a Tommy John surgery.

Tommy John’s 1974 Topps card

It is rare for the average person to put so much wear and tear on their elbow from throwing things that they wind up with a torn UCL. But this happens to pitchers, and it has been happening in increasing numbers for several years.

In just the last couple of weeks, multiple well-known pitchers have experienced the dreaded “elbow soreness”, usually a precursor to Tommy John surgery. Now, there are a lot of ways that pitchers might get injured. But in simplest terms, Tommy John surgeries result from throwing too hard for too long.

The foremost practitioner of the Tommy John surgery is the famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who learned the procedure from Frank Jobe in the 1970s. Andrews retired earlier this year, and in an interview on the occasion of his retirement said this:

“I started following the injury patterns and injury rates in the year 2000,” said Andrews. “Back in those days, I did about eight or nine Tommy Johns per year in high school aged and younger. The large majority of Tommy Johns were at the Major League level, then the Minor League level, then the college level and then just a handful of high school kids.

“In today’s situation, the whole thing is flip-flopped. The largest number is youth baseball. They’ve surpassed what’s being done in the Major Leagues. That’s a terrible situation.”

In other words, what’s happening out there is that pitchers are throwing too hard for too long when they’re still just kids.

In baseball, kids at relatively young ages are taught to throw in ways that maximize both velocity and spin rate. The more spin you are able to put on the ball at the time of release, the more the ball will “move” en route to the plate. A pitch which at first looks like a ball will become a strike or vice-versa, and because it’s moving so quickly it’s incredibly difficult for the batter to react appropriately.

Kids are also increasingly taught to give maximum effort on every pitch. As pitchers have become so much better, so too have batters, so if you don’t throw the ball as hard as you can, the batter will crush the pitch. So you better give maximum effort every time.

And so high school kids are having major elbow surgeries. They often recover well, but that’s not the point. Why are we doing this to kids?

And as fans, we wind up going to games, and we don’t know who these guys are that are pitching. The ace starter is an endangered species at this point, and yet the ace starter is also traditionally one of the biggest draws the game has had.

I love going to Major League games, and I love that my kid is playing baseball at age 10, and I really do wish he could experience all that love too. But it’s not the same for him. And in focusing solely on the baseball reasons why it’s not the same, the reality is, his games are unnecessarily tense for games that are being played by 9 and 10 year olds; and his ability to connect with Major League players is inhibited by the reality that even his dad who pays close attention doesn’t know who any of these pitchers are.

There are multiple things amiss here, but I don’t think this is simply about baseball. What’s happening with baseball can get obscured by the reality that it’s still highly profitable at the Major League level, that teams sell for a couple billion dollars, that contracts are huge, etc. But reality is not so easily obscured elsewhere.

Educators have been leaving their field in droves for a while. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which being that they’re often relatively poorly paid and appreciated, but what’s really tipped for many of them is that the job has just gotten to be so much harder. So much more intense. So much more added to it.

Doctors get paid well, but to what end? Did you realize that the suicide rate for doctors is double the rate for the rest of the population, and much worse for certain specialties? Here’s just one article about the crisis, but you can easily find dozens more.

Do you think that maybe - just maybe - conditions in education and health care are such that a lot of people who would be very good at these jobs are understandably scared away?

It’s because these people, like pitchers, are constantly being expected to give maximum effort. And as human beings, we are not built to be constantly giving maximum effort. It is one thing to be called upon to perform heroic feats as needs arise. It is yet another thing to be expected to be a hero just by virtue of being on the clock.

I was at a work conference last week, and one of the presentations went like this: In Formula 1 car racing, mere milliseconds can be the difference between winning and losing. And so these racing teams have built these incredible technological systems to try and identify the slightest efficiencies that can be gained. The whole thing was kind of a business parable about the idea of cutting whatever marginal costs can be found to achieve efficiencies and therefore profits.

I understand what the point was. And it is true that in Formula 1, milliseconds matter. And, well, it is also true that in an emergency room, seconds matter. Efficiencies there can actually save lives.

But that is not where most “efficiencies” are found, and we all know it. And you better believe that if there’s a way to make money out of inefficiencies, someone will absolutely take advantage of that. This approach has many names, but the one you’re probably most familiar with is “health insurance”.

Even when the efficiencies “work” - even when the pitcher learns how to load differently, or how to release differently, or how to push off differently, or how to do any number of little mechanical things which result in a more difficult pitch to hit - well, does it really all “work” if he’s got to undergo the knife? At age 16?

Joe Posnanski wrote today about all of this in the context of Major League Baseball and how incentives have to change, and as usual I think he’s right. But I think the real problem is way upstream of the majors, and that it’s not simply a baseball pressure. Society broadly incentives the narrow pursuit of efficiencies. After all, in our pockets, don’t we all carry incredible technological conveyors of efficiency?

Ahh, but you say, don’t those very conveyors also waste a lot of our time?

And I rejoin that this is the wrong way to think about things. This is wrong in part because it ignores the teaching of our dear saint:

We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

But it is also wrong because so much of the time we spend engaged in “efficiency” has a fraying effect on us individually and collectively. It’s not the literal fraying of human tissue that leads to a ligament tear. It’s a more insidious fraying, insidious because it’s not measurable, not subject to replacement with some other tissue elsewhere.

The damage being done in a physical, quantifiable manner to young people who are giving “maximum effort” today is something which should sharpen our understanding of the collective damage we’re doing to one another when we’re constantly demanding “maximum effort”.

This isn’t a call for abject laziness or abdication of responsibility. This is a call for common sense, for balance. Sometimes the pitcher needs to rear back and find that little extra. Sometimes the nurse needs to deal with an extraordinarily difficult shift. Sometimes the teacher needs to juggle a seemingly impossible classroom situation. We’ve allowed all of this to be super-normalized and we need to do better.

This all actually started as the latest love letter to baseball, if you can believe it. What I’d like to emphasize here is that I’m not trying to just outright blast the game. Baseball, to me, is a quintessentially American construct, and as such I embrace it neither in spite of nor because of its flaws, but because of how the beauty emerges from the complexity. As they say in Hawai’i: no rain, no rainbows.

As it so happens, Kurt Vonnegut’s directive to fart around does seem to well justify a trip to the ballpark. The past two weekends, we’ve seen what might turn out to be a historically bad White Sox team hit a couple home runs but give up a couple in turn and bow to the Tigers, and then the Brewers jump all over the Mariners early in the first game I’ve ever been at with a position player pitching.

Like so many other things, a baseball game is more gripping when the stadium is packed and you can feel the emotion of the crowd… but then you’re also surrounded by a whole lot of people which means everything is slower. It’s a tradeoff… one which you won’t have to experience too much of this year on the South Side, I’m afraid. Tickets will be cheap and plentiful though!

Up north north, what I notice is that the surrounding metro area is at least superficially a lot more in tune with the idea that the Brewers are playing again and that everybody should know it. More flags, more billboards where local companies appear to be minor sponsors, etc. There’s a charm to it all.

I’ve been keen for this season to start because I’ve spent the last four months reading a whole lot of baseball books. The wonderful Molly Knight was the catalyst to a lot of this, because she facilitated a reading club over the winter. Three of the books were on her list, and one of the books was actually her own book. Dating back to December, these are the six baseball books I’ve finished recently:

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn: The all-time classic about the Dodgers of the early 1950s, based on his being a beat reporter, and then years later going back around and interviewing anyone he could find. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, one of the greatest casts you could ever imagine, all in the hands of an absolute artist. I first read it about 35 years ago, and found my copy on my mom’s bookshelf.

Why We Love Baseball: A History in 50 Moments by Joe Posnanski: Of the whole lot, if you read just one book, this is the one, because Joe is the best, and the title of the book does indeed say it all.

The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse by Molly Knight: Centered on the 2013-14 seasons, a time when you might have expected the Dodgers to have won multiple World Series over the following decade. But, hmm, they haven’t…

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner: The chapters here have names like “Fastball” and “Sinker” and the emphasis is on the great practitioners of such pitches.

How Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell: In the late 70s and early 80s, Boswell was a baseball columnist at the Washington Post, and this book is a collection of essays he wrote during that period.

Late Innings by Roger Angell: Esteemed by some as the greatest baseball writer, Angell was a long-time editor at The New Yorker who also wrote long form baseball pieces for them. These selections are also from the late 70s and early 80s.

The Boswell and Angell collections cover about the same timeframe, both culminating at just about the time that I first remember watching baseball. I’m not sure if what I remember is actually what I saw, you know? Over the decades so many other details have crept in.

What all of these books manage to convey in their own ways is the deep sense of wonder that baseball can instill. That wonder can stretch and contort in a lot of vivid directions. And, oh, that wonder can fray, too. It can even snap. But, if we’re lucky, that mental ligament will stay intact.

And so I found myself sitting above American Family Field in Milwaukee with a souvenir baseball in my hand, showing my son how to hold the seams for a classic fastball, and demonstrating what it must mean for Brewers pitcher Colin Rea to be throwing a splitter and then a slider.

I don’t know that I accurately conveyed all that I was hoping to here. I’m definitely no Joe Posnanski or Roger Angell. I hope though that more people will speak up everywhere and say that as part of our love of the game - as part of our love of each other as human beings - we appreciate the effort, but we’ve got to be better to one another. We can’t expect maximum effort from each other all the time. What we can expect is some excitement and some decency, and as ever, the opportunity to fart around.


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