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March 9, 2011

Wezen-Ball

Greinke Isn't the Only One Playing Basketball

by Larry Granillo

As a Brewers fan, the news on Tuesday that Zack Greinke would be starting the season on the disabled list due to a broken rib was rather upsetting. Greinke is one of the best pitchers in baseball and his acquisition was supposed to herald in a memorable, playoff-chasing 2011 season. Getting injured so early in the year, and in such a dangerous part of the body, is not the type of thing any Milwaukee fan wants to hear.

But I'm not one to overreact. The club has said that they are just being extra-careful with Greinke this early in the year. If this were, say, the playoffs, he would be healthy enough to play. That lessened the sting a bit. Not all fans are buying it, though, and they seem to all be taking it out on Greinke and the way his injury came about: Greinke injured his ribs in a game of pickup basketball by diving for a rebound in the first week of spring training. "How could he be so stupid?!" seems to be the common thought amongst the irate. "You get paid to play BASEBALL, not basketball!"

For what it's worth, Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin has come out and said that Greinke's injury was not a violation of Greinke's contract (like, say, Jeff Kent's "carwash" injury did).  

“The contract stipulates against playing ‘competitive’ basketball,” said Melvin. “They don’t want you playing in men’s leagues or things like that..."

Again, that has done nothing to quell the uneasiness in the Brewers fanbase. And why would it? Basketball is a very physical sport and it seems inevitable that anyone playing the game in a serious, regular manner is bound to get injured. And, when you're making millions of dollars a year to play baseball and be a small market's savior, that just doesn't cut it. Right?

Well...

Until the gymnasium he built at his house was completed in December—it has a basketball court, scoreboard, weights, batting cage, etc.— [Cal] Ripken, teammates and friends played basketball three nights a week for four winters at Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School. At Bryn Mawr, you could learn more about Ripken than you could by watching him play shortstop at Memorial Stadium.

No fans were watching, there was no image to uphold and no iron man streak on the line, but every game at Bryn Mawr was like the seventh game of the World Series to Ripken. He was a madman on the offensive and defensive boards. He dived for loose balls. If the big man he was guarding was slow getting down the floor, Ripken harassed the little guard bringing the ball up. In basketball as in baseball, Ripken isn't a marvelously skilled or graceful player, but he was the best at Bryn Mawr. Ripken was so dominating that new players—all big—were recruited to guard him and make the games fairer. He pounded them, too.

"It's the last game of the night, and he gets mad when everyone is tired and he's still going," says Flanagan, a regular at Bryn Mawr and last winter at Ripken's gym. Oriole second baseman Bill Ripken, who gets his older brother the ball in baseball and basketball, marvels at the energy level of a man so big—6'4", 225 pounds. "He's nonstop. Everyone else is gassed, and he's dunking," Bill says. "I like how he gets ticked off, with nothing on the line, in a pickup game."

That excerpt comes from a July 1991 Sports Illustrated article by Tim Kurkjian about Cal Ripken, Jr., who was in the middle of his second MVP season. Any fan of Ripken knows that, outside of baseball, there was no sport that the 6'4" shortstop loved more than basketball. He played the sport in high school and, quite obviously, continued playing it as an adult.

Newspaper and magazine articles can be found as far back as 1982 or 1983 all the way through 2000 describing "pickup basketball" as a regular part of his offseason workouts. As the Kurkjian passage above shows, these weren't lighthearted games either. For a man who spent 17 years as the pinnacle of health and durability in baseball, the basketball games - something everyone seems to be jumping down Zack Greinke's throat about today - may be a bit surprising to some.

Does Ripken's 20 years of hardnosed pickup basketball have any bearing on Zack Greinke's injury this spring? What about the rib injury Ripken suffered (while playing basketball, at the age of 40) only ten years ago, shortly before his retirement? Not directly, no. But it does provide proof that teams have been allowing their star players to play pickup basketball for a long time, even as salaries expanded in the 1990s and beyond. It also, anecdotally, shows us that ultra-competitive superstars can have a long, healthy career despite winters filled with basketball.

Zack Greinke's injury this spring playing pickup basketball is a major disappointment to all Brewers fans. But fans should stop getting hung up on the mode of injury. If Greinke had instead injured himself in a low-key activity like golf or jogging, everyone would be upset at him for doing those activities instead of just staying home and relaxing. It's the nature of fandom. Players get injured all the time, in many different ways. All anyone can do is let them get healthy in the best way possible and go from there. The Brewers are proceeding exactly as they should, and, come September, will be the better for it.

Related Content:  Zack Greinke,  Basketball,  Cal Ripken Jr.,  Cal Ripken

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The Payoff Pitch: Cont... (03/08)
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Wezen-Ball: Vogon Poet... (03/08)
Next Column >>
Wezen-Ball: Back to Ba... (03/13)
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