First Pitch: How Cal Ripken Almost Killed Me, and Maybe Put a Few Baseball Players at Risk Too

I grew up an Orioles fan, and for one reason: Cal Ripken Jr. Well, technically two reasons. While my dad was from Pittsburgh, my mom was from Baltimore. I don’t know why I picked the Penguins and Steelers as my favorite teams, but went with the Orioles. The Ravens weren’t around then, so I didn’t have a choice for a football team. I don’t think I would have picked the Ravens as my favorite football team. I have a soul. As for baseball, I can only think it was due to Ripken, just like how milk was my favorite drink when I was young because of the “Drink Your Milk, Cal” advertisements.

There was one thing I really liked about Ripken, and that was The Streak. The idea that he never took a day off, and played through everything was something I respected. It was also a goal that I always have tried to live up to, and a work ethic that my family pushed as well. I’ve worked from home for several years now, so it’s pretty easy to show up to work when you’re sick in that scenario. That has never stopped me from covering a game when I’ve got a migraine, or covering Spring Training games with a fever and my throat slowly closing up due to what I learned later that evening was a severe case of strep throat.

I bring all of this up because of one question I was thinking about today: why would an athlete play down an injury and keep playing through pain?

This isn’t my question specifically. It’s just a question that is brought up every time there is a story about how an athlete downplayed his injury, didn’t tell the team about it, and potentially risked hurting himself even more. I expected that question to come up today in response to the news that Cole Tucker had surgery to repair a torn UCL in his hand, which is an injury he played through during the 2014 season. I don’t think it was brought up, but I still had the question on my mind.

So I thought about that question. Why would a player play hurt and risk further injury? Then I thought about what I would do, and I thought about my history with the subject. I thought about the last job I had where I had to actually go to a workplace, and how I never called out when I was sick. I thought about how that was due to Cal Ripken, and due to my parents and family, who pushed that kind of work ethic.

Then I thought about how we might just be seeing the end of one era in America and the beginning of another era.

There’s a divide between my age and someone of Tucker’s age. I was in middle school when he was born. I was heading to college when he was starting grade school. I started this site when he was 12 years old, and now I’m covering him as a professional baseball player. And I just successfully made myself feel very old by laying out the age difference.

I don’t know Tucker’s parents. I don’t know if he looked up to Ripken and his worth ethic. But I’d imagine his parents are from the same era as my parents, and that seemed to be an era that was much more strict on work ethic in the form of showing up every day and never calling out sick.

Now we’re entering an era where it’s not only acceptable to take a day off, but it’s encouraged. The occasional break or vacation is seen as something that keeps you fresh and more productive during the times that you are working. In short, it’s about quality of work and not quantity of work days. It’s also about getting back to 100 percent much faster by taking time to recover, rather than risking further injury.

Thinking back to my strep throat incident, I went to the urgent care center because I was sitting on my couch and couldn’t even swallow my own saliva. It got to that point because I spent the entire day watching baseball, snapping Instagram pics, and writing articles. And I did that while sick because I grew up thinking that you had to show up for work every day, no matter what. Basically, Cal Ripken almost killed me. (Total sarcasm there, as that incident didn’t stop me from geeking out when I saw him in the PNC press box later that year during the playoffs.) The same kind of mindset for an athlete could also lead to further injuries or more serious injuries when those athletes show up to play while injured.

Baseball has always mirrored American history and values. This is another example. You used to see pitchers throwing every three or four days. You had position players playing 162 games per year. Now you see some of the best players getting scheduled days off when they’re totally healthy, just to keep them fresh for when they do play. You see pitchers throwing every five days, and getting their innings limited in the process. You see relievers in specialized roles, and limited to one inning per night, and no more than three days of work in a row.

We’ve seen a shift in the work force, and I don’t think that’s just in baseball. It used to be that you came to work every day, all year, no matter what. Now it is recognized that a break makes you more productive when you’re at work, and that sometimes you shouldn’t “play through the pain.” It’s not showing up everyday that leads to production. It’s being fresh when you are working that leads to productivity.

So when will we see that translate over to the game of baseball? Will we ever see a day where players notify a team instantly of an injury and take themselves out of the lineup — which would have never even been imagined in the 50s, 60s, and 70s? Part of me thinks that athletes will always try to play through the pain, due to their competitive nature and drive to remain on the field. But there’s also the changing mindset. Maybe in 10 or 20 years, we’ll start to see athletes enter the game who weren’t raised with the “work everyday, no matter what” mindset, and didn’t watch Cal Ripken when they were growing up, but were instead told that it’s fine to take a day off when needed. And maybe then we will see the stigma removed of an athlete telling his team that he might not be able to play.

Until then, I can totally understand how someone like Tucker would play through the pain. And I talk about him in this article only because he’s the most recent example, and not to put a spotlight on him. I don’t think it’s a major issue that he downplayed his injury. If I put myself in his shoes, I’d do the same thing. And that’s all because of Cal Ripken.

**Here is the story on Tucker having surgery to repair his torn UCL in his hand. It also includes video of Tucker from batting practice today.

**In other news from Pirate City, Jameson Taillon threw his first bullpen since Tommy John surgery. The link includes comments from Taillon and video from the bullpen session.

**The 2015 top 20 countdown continued today, and will run Monday-Friday over the next three weeks. Today’s prospect was #14 – Cody Dickson. You can get the entire top 20, plus the full top 50 and profiles on 200+ players in the system by purchasing the 2015 Prospect Guide.

**Last night I put up a survey about things you’d like to see on the site in 2015, which I’d still like everyone to take. I got a lot of good responses today, and a few ideas for new content going forward. I actually look forward to the suggestions more than the comments that talk about how you like the site. That said, the comments complimenting the site are much appreciated, and also give me a good idea of what to continue strengthening on the site. If you haven’t taken the survey yet, and you want some input on how the site will be run, then please click the link above and submit your entry.

**The Jung Ho Kang contract details were released. I also updated the 2015 payroll page and the future payroll page with the figures. As for the corresponding move, the Pirates designated Jake Elmore for assignment.

**MLB.com will release their top 100 prospects on January 30th. Until then, they will be releasing top prospects at each position. Tyler Glasnow was named one of their top ten right-handed pitching prospects.

**Winter Leagues: Gorkys Hernandez Homers, Perez Continues Dominant Playoff Run

  • You definitely need to take a day off once and awhile. After having knee, back, and nasal surgery in a 12 year span I had to miss some days but my last 2 years at a company I was with for 14 years I missed zero days and I was laid off so it really has no bearing on your career sometimes. If you have them take them…at least if you are working for a corporation…if it is your own business it’s a different story of course. I used to hate it when my teammates came to work sick…I’d rather do twice the work for a few days than have them get all of us sick….but I understand, my dad was a steelworker and never missed work so you get that mentality and it is hard to divert…and Tim I had the throat thing where I couldn’t swallow once. It’s scary. I rushed to an urgent care and got pulled over for speeding which added insult to it. The policeman offered to give me an escort to the urgent care…but he still gave me a ticket.

  • It depends on the situation, the severity, and the person. Anyone who has spent a large amount of time working to perfect an athletic discipline will have to learn their own body and address accordingly. They will make mistakes doing this.

    For example: A family member who has not participated in sports since they were a teenager -and is now 50- might not be able to distinguish ‘soreness’ pain that will heal in 1-3 days and pain that is going to become chronic because something is torn, or damaged severely. A professional athlete knows that if they really want to get stronger or faster, they will have to go through many painful days of recuperation. It’s not always easy when you feel a new tweak or injury for the first time, to know whether it is an injury, or a mild strain that you can work through. I think the best way to determine this is thru experience.

    I guarantee you that someone who can squat 400 or 500 lbs has had many days after working out that they can barely walk or stand up, and are back under the squat rack in a day or two, with no injury. This amount of pain, which is just soreness and your body recuperating, would make most people quit immediately because they think they hurt themselves. This is what makes the difference between most athletes, and people who are not one. (Or people who have enough on their plate in life, that have decided this type of work is not worth their time.)

    On the other hand, that athlete also knows that after being off for two months, trying to do the same workout that they ended with, after even a two-week layoff, will likely cause a real injury that will set them back for several weeks or months.

    You have to play through pain if you want to progress, but it is sometimes a fine line between injury/soreness/strain that I don’t think we will ever perfect, at least in the near future.

  • “Look, our client was a shortstop, not an M.D. You’re on your own in terms of the wheres and whens of urgent care.”
    –Cal’s lawyers

    • It’s your body attached to your mind, know them well and you will be well. — pilbobuggins

  • This article has a multitude of directions one can go, from work ethic to players taking themselves out of games, to big shifts in the workforce. Pick one or all!
    Lets start with Ripkin. I don’t know of anyone that he would affect when it came to working. Work ethic, some people have it some are just plain lazy. Work ethic can sometimes be confused with showing up at work every day. There was a time when the workforce had a considerably large hourly force, no work, no pay and there were workers that showed up but never put much effort into work, unlike Ripken. True there is a shift in the work force, you have more women in the work force now than ever before with days off for reasons men never used and management that borderlined on cruel at times. I used to hate Danny Murtaugh, Clemente did not like him either, Clemente was always hurting and Murtaugh did not like it, but my problem with Murtaugh was that he rested players, players that I wanted to see when I bought a ticket, but now, I think he was ahead of his time and I think he was one of the best managers of all time, at that time I did not understand depth and having a team that was fresh going down the stretch, but baseball is an ever learning experience. I grew up in the era of players never admitting they were hurt or taking themselves out of games. I believe in this era however, that they do get removed, either by themselves or a trainer or manager and if it is an injury, they don’t play until they are cleared and show they can produce on a high level. So many players take off for long periods of time with hamstrings, concussions, hand injuries, very few of these would have kept a player out of a game in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s or 70’s.
    I apologize for the long post.

    • Nice post.

      I think the game being much cleaner today than at any point in probably the last 60 years should also be factored into the historical comparison. There’s a reason greenies were passed around like a bowl of Skittles back in the 60s & 70s. Forgetting a moment about the laughably high rate of adult ADHD going around Major League Baseball right now, players in that era had the extreme benefit of playing on amphetamines.

      • I’ll add that, to continually play at a high level, rest and recovery are just required, it has nothing to do with mental toughness or work ethic it is physiology. Sometime like a quarter of Formula 1 cars breakdown over a 200 mile race. The talent pool in baseball is bigger and the training methods more refined, so you have relatively fitter athletes in a more competitive environment, fatigue is going to happen, rest is a better option than injury.

  • Lee Foo Young
    January 21, 2015 8:35 am

    Tim….From that Tucker story, welcome to one of many reminders to come that you are getting older. I knew I was getting way too old when I started to referee my friends’ GRANDkids.

  • Nice article, Tim! The Orioles were always my 2nd favorite after the Pirates, but I wore #8 whenever I could through little league because of Ripken.

    But I personally think there are 3 factors in this, and 2 of them have to do with fear.

    1. Indirectly, Wally Pipp probably has a bigger impact on the mindset of these players than Ripken. Every player knows that if they’re not in there, they can get passed up quickly.

    2. Lots of people don’t go to the doctor’s because they don’t want to know. Many fear the worst, so they figure if I don’t go, then I don’t have anything. The difference between us and them, is injuries quickly end careers and dash dreams for players, we still keep our jobs (usually).

    3. How many times do we applaud the quarterback who comes back in the game when he’s hurt. And the announcers always call it “a gutsy performance” (what a great guy sacrificing himself for his team!!) instead of calling it what it often is, stupid! These athletes have probably had coaches their whole lives encourage them to play hurt. So until the “it’s okay to take a day off” group becomes the youth, high school and college coaches of these athletes, it probably won’t be reflected in the athlete’s actions. It will always be a generation behind!

  • Scott Kliesen
    January 21, 2015 5:41 am

    I’m not trying to judge, but in my experience, which is a couple decades more than the Author, I’ve found those who are the cream of the crop, sacrifice much to get there. Taking a scheduled day off may have some physically beneficial merits in baseball, but it also is a day a player didn’t make themselves better.

    The best of the best at anything are always the one’s who combine God-given talent with a extraordinary work ethic. I’ll bet if Cutch had his way, he’d play 162 each and every season. One doesn’t get to his level of accomplishment without having that sort of drive.

    • I don’t think you understood the article.

      • I dunno. I think Scott may have understood the article just fine. I think there is truth to the assumption that the super competitive (who are also often the super talented) thrive on the competitiveness/desire to win and would be much harder to convince to take a day off. Tim even referenced that in the article.

        As a society, sure, things have changed regarding “rest for mental health”. Companies offer “personal” days as a benefit. But in my experience, top performers in corporate are less likely to take those. Sort of the same thing.

        • “We’ve seen a shift in the work force, and I don’t think that’s just in baseball. It used to be that you came to work every day, all year, no matter what. Now it is recognized that a break makes you more productive when you’re at work, and that sometimes you shouldn’t “play through the pain.” It’s not showing up everyday that leads to production. It’s being fresh when you are working that leads to productivity.”

          I could be wrong, but it seemed like Tim was arguing that training smart rather than training “gritty” may actually make the player better overall. And I think he’s right.

          Tim used Cole Tucker as an example, but how about Vance Worley? There’s a guy who tried to pitch through an injury, which forced him to alter his mechanics in order to compensate for the deficiency. That decision literally drove him out of the Major Leagues. How did showing up everyday help him again?

          • I was referencing this passage from Tim: Part of me thinks that athletes will always try to play through the
            pain, due to their competitive nature and drive to remain on the field.

            Anyway, regarding your other comment on The Streak, I agree. From 83-91, you could make an argument that Cal had value being in every game due to his value, but most of those teams weren’t very good, so Cal or no Cal, they weren’t going anywhere.

            After 91, his performance and value dropped, but The Streak was the main reason to go to an O’s game until 96-97 when they were playoff bound. Can’t help but think that as long as The Streak was going on, Cal knew he’d be the story more than anything else…

          • A fair point, but I think going to an office job when you are sick and won’t be able to work efficiently, is very different than working out a physical issue that you are not sure is an injury or not. Cole got it wrong. However, going to work with a flu that has just started, is not a good idea if you are getting others around you sick and have the ability to take a day off.

            An athlete that has an injury of a certain type, say tendonitis, will respond better to side work such as soft-tissue therapy combined with continued working of the limb, and recovery will happen without rest. Certain injuries just don’t respond as well to rest as others, some need to be worked out.

            • OH, certainly agree with you there. Great point. Should be said that I’d expect the athlete to work even harder rehabbing the injury or ailment. Even if just plain rest is the answer, there’d surely be film to watch or diet to follow.

        • I think it also should be noted, in the context of showing up every day being considered altruistic, that The Streak was completely, utterly selfish.

          It is almost unfathomable to consider a scenario where the Baltimore Orioles, as a team, could not have benefited from Cal Ripken taking a few days off over the course 16 seasons.

      • Scott Kliesen
        January 21, 2015 8:27 pm

        I don’t think you understood my comment.

    • Very good point.

  • Might be a big part of why america is near the bottom in a lot of categories we used to be first in until the mid 70’s or so. Ah well I just hope I’m not around when china takes over I would miss good ol’american baseball.

    • And GET OFF MY LAWN!!!

    • What categories are you talking about that America was first in until the mid-1970’s? Because I have a feeling this is nostalgia-based analysis.

      • Education,at or near the top.. manufacturing at or near the top. Exports at or near the top ect.ect. the list goes on and on. And don’t forget baseball.

        • So we just need another World War to destroy the world’s manufacturing and economies outside the United States, and a bunch autocratic leaders to impoverish and kill their own people?

          • Looks like that’s happening without the world war and I would not rule that out sad to say.

    • Fair to say that America doesnt lead in some areas anymore, but to assume that it is in part due to us not working as hard is rather dumb since nearly any study on the subject shows that Americans work longer days and take less vacations than nearly any other country. If our lack of showing up to work each day and “gutting it out” was a chunk of why we were struggling, Europe would be dead as they have much more giving vacation time, paternity leave etc.

  • The I have a soul part cracked me up. LOL

  • I like this a lot. I’ve learned recently that I do need days off, and while my sports are pick-up games and rec leagues, if I’m hurt, I don’t play until I’m sure I can. I messed up my ankles and knees pretty badly trying to play through things when I was younger, and I don’t need to be any sorer in my old age moving forward by continuing to make the same mistakes.

    • I looked in the mirror a few years ago and realized that I now weighed well over 100 lbs more than I did in college 30 years ago (and I was usually chronically underweight in my youth) and I started running. The “Couch to 5k” program stresses only running 3 days a week, which I adopted. A friend of mine, who also lost over 100 lbs. in her 40s, and now does triathalons, told me “rest and recovery is just as important as exercise.” Most people who try to “get in shape” miss this very fact. They try to exercise every day and end up hurting themselves and getting frustrated. Listen to you body, it will tell you when you need to rest and recover.

      • I know I see The Biggest Loser show on TV and cringe. They are so focused on results but those people lose so fast it seems like they have to be destroyed after competing on that show for months and months. Hard enough for real athletes to go at it everyday but for someone that has lived sedentary for years…I can’t believe no one on that show has ever died doing it.

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