On Injuries, Toughness, and Masculinity

Pete Abe echoes what I’ve been wondering on Wang, but certainly seems apropos for others:

Just wondering, but does anybody else question what is going on with the Yankees and their ability to properly evaluate injuries? Damaso Marte went seven days without pitching then they decided to put him on the disabled list. Then we found out today that the injury he had in spring training never really cleared up. Meanwhile, he made seven appearances and got knocked around.

Chien-Ming Wang, as it turns out, had weakness in his injured foot and that led to atrophied hip muscles. How did this go unnoticed all spring and lead to his getting crushed for three starts?

A-Rod said his hip injury was an issue last June. Yet he played the rest of the year and it went undiagnosed until March. Then he needed surgery that has so far kept him out a month.

There is no one person at fault here. Maybe the players have to be more honest about how they feel or the coaches and medical staff more observant. Maybe Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi need to demand greater accountability. But Marte, Wang and Rodriguez are important players and in all three cases, something broke down.

Look at Mark Teixeira, for instance. He has not been the same since he injured his wrist. What would be better for the Yankees, Juan Miranda playing first base or Tex going 2 for 27? Should he be on the DL?

Obviously medical issues are tricky and many factors are involved. Injuries are not always apparent or become worse over time. I realize it’s difficult to judge what is the right thing to do.

But as Marte was saying today that his shoulder has hurt for, “a long time” it was all I could do not to say, “Then what the heck were you out there pitching for?”

Amen.  This was among the first things I thought when the Wang injury was diagnosed.  I don’t know whether or not Wang tried to gut it out, or if the team just missed this.  But it was lost on me how the team didn’t recognize his lack of velocity in Spring Training–if they figured he’d gain it soon enough, if they were concerned but didn’t follow through on the kind of tests they did later to determine the foot weakness, or if Wang didn’t disclose much.  Now, the same with Marte.  Here we are as fans wondering why Marte is pitching so badly, if he just isn’t effective, and as it turns out his shoulder has been a problem for weeks.  Teixeira hasn’t been right for a couple weeks and, despite the cortisone shot, hasn’t hit for beans.

The obvious question is why have these guys been playing.  Is it the lack of internal options at first, in Teixeira’s case?  Is it the “suck-it-up” culture that has long pervaded sports and certainly the Yankees, especially revealed in Torre’s The Yankee Years?  Is it a byproduct of what Mike Sommer wondered in the previous post, in the post-PaVoldemort era in which no one wants to appear to be like that chucklehead and, as a result, people are playing through things they shouldn’t?

It could well be a combination of all those things, with the players and management all more or less on the same page about wanting players to gut it out as much and as long as possible.  This certainly would fit in with how the Yankees pursue things, trying to extract as much value and production as possible from players, so many of whom are very high paid.  It to a degree explains why the Yankees didn’t just cut bait on PaVoldemort.  In addition to the fact that they would not have received anything close in personnel for what their initial pre-2005 investment in that lout was, and would probably have paid much of his bloated salary for another team just to take his hide, they wanted to get something out of him in pinstripes.

Personally, I put the most stock in the culture of playing through pain, even if the result is detrimental to the player and at times the team due to ineffective play.  This has existed literally for generations, and one can peruse any of scores of books on sports generally, and baseball and the Yankees particularly, for evidence of this.  It’s very much tied up in the ways that masculinity is constructed and replicated in sports, with “the code” being that one shows not just one’s worth, but one’s masculinity and toughness, by playing as such, especially if effectively.  Think such things don’t exist?  Think players aren’t subjected to having more than their toughness and integrity, but their masculinity questioned if they don’t play through pain and/or injuries?  Think again.  Look at how players such as Jeter, but also others in recent but previous years such as Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. treated questions about injuries–“I’m fine.  Next question.”  Look at how players such as Bobby Richardson, certainly no weakling, thought when he was spiked in Gwme 4 of the 1961 World Series and bled the rest of the game.  It occurred after Mickey Mantle had to exit after the hole in his upper thigh, as a result of the penicillin shot gone awry near the end of the season, prevented him from playing and in fact bled through both his uniform and the yards of bandages plugging the wound. “I’d be ashamed to come out after Mickey’s been playing with what he’s got,” Richardson said.  Not playing through pain, especially when others do so and play through worse, produces a sense of shame that has everything to do with what is considered masculine in sports.

Consider also various famous sports moments and performances in which people played under duress–Jordan playing with the flu in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals and still carrying them to a 90-88 win with 38 points, 7 boards, and 5 assists; Scottie Pippen getting harangued for not being able to play in Game 7 of the 1990 NBA Eastern Conference Finals loss to the hated Pistons due to a migraine; Willis Reed dramatically shaking off a torn thigh muscle to play Game 7 of the 1970 Finals and beat the Lakers; Wilt Chamberlain’s taking himself out late in the Lakers’ Game 7 loss to the Celtics in the 1969 NBA Finals much to the long-standing chagrin of his friend and heated rival Bill Russell, with whom Chamberlain didn’t speak for years after Russell questioned his toughness because of the incident; the 1986-1987 Celtics playing as a M*A*S*H unit in high-top sneakers through a bad elbow (Bird), a stress fracture in his right foot and a sprained right ankle (McHale), a badly sprained ankle (Parish), a bad shoulder (DJ), and bad feet and back (Walton).  Walton couldn’t play, but think the others wouldn’t?  The same players whom Bird referred to, and himself, as having “played like a bunch of women” after an embarrassing blowout loss in game 3 of the 1984 NBA Finals to the hated Lakers?  All of these, just from professional basketball alone illustrate not just the code but the crucial subtext that masculinity in sports is very much intertwined with how players handle and play through pain.

Pride in oneself and one’s team has much to do with this as well.  Remember what Jorge put himself through last season, playing through a shoulder injury that became a badly torn labrum that needed major surgery, and there he was not only playing but hardly wincing as he routinely threw down to second base.  I have no doubt that a prideful, dedicated guy like Jorge, the guts of the team, simply wouldn’t let himself not play in good part because he did not want to let his teammates down.  I have no doubt that Jorge, and JD as well, took more than a little pride in never having been on the DL before last season.

It’s a fine line, and one that becomes more than socially problematic but, perhaps in this instance with the Yankees, detrimental to the on-field performance of the team.  This is admittedly speculative since there could me more behind the scenes with this team and how it has and hasn’t handled injuries in recent years.  But I wouldn’t readily overlook this aspect of gendered constructions and sports culture.  Nor do I doubt that similar attitudes of what constitutes toughness permeate the burgeoning realm of women’s sports, though somewhat distinct from the parameters of masculinity.

Published in: on May 3, 2009 at 11:26 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. this a great article..one of your better ones…

    without getting into the pride/masculinity issues I’m simply worried that the yankees do not have an adequate system for evaluating their players health. they seemed to have lagged behind the sed sox in this area for quite some time. it is a disgrace that wang was not properly appraised before spring training. the details on marte seem a bit sketchy and anything having to do with a-rod is shrouded in rumors etc..but it’s hard to imagine why there has been so little follow up.

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    I have no doubt that what you’re saying definitely part of the problem. I think much of it has to do with the bureaucratic layers through which all pertinent information seems to need to travel with the Yankees. Girardi is always conferring with Cashman and no doubt others regarding any health situation, and I suspect that the team lacks the sufficient staff for such evaluations. “The Yankee Years” alluded to that lag with the Yankees in various ways, and medically I don’t doubt it exists as well.

    I was just trying to probe this information a bit to hopefully elucidate what is often not discussed in sports, and how the players and that culture may also contribute to the difficulties in assessing these injuries. So often, they just don’t say boo. The tough machismo that I believe undergirds that is a double-edged sword–it’s pretty amazing individually, as well as often counter-productive for the team, to see what athletes endure to get out there and perform.

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