Talk to enough diehard baseball fans and you’ll find people who find comfort in the length of the baseball season. Baseball will never really feel like an event because it isn’t one—it’s mundane, quotidian. Football is a vacation. Football happens once a week on national TV—you block out your day to watch football. Baseball happens six times a week, times 30 teams if you’re an MLB.tv addict. You don’t block out your day to watch baseball, but baseball’s on the radio while you’re driving home from work or doing the dishes. It’s on the TV when you’re at the bar with your friends. It’s humming in the background while you fall asleep on the sofa on Sunday afternoon.
Baseball is always there when you need it because baseball is always there.
And that’s a comforting feeling. The college season starts around Valentine’s Day, spring training shortly thereafter, and major-league exhibition games a couple weeks after that. And if you think the anticipation during that period is rough on fans, imagine what it’s like for a player who’s worked out all offseason and can only validate himself professionally on the field—that’s what he’s prepared for his whole life, so can we get on with it already, you know?
While the players are long tossing and practicing bunt drills, we’re putting together preview pieces and drafting fantasy teams, operating on the assumption that baseball will be from April to September, played under the conditions we witnessed in March. We’re ready for baseball to come back, to spend another six months in that comforting grind, watching the game rock us to sleep like the ocean.
So let’s talk about the guys who fell out of the boat.
I listen to podcasts or audiobooks, instead of music, while I’m driving, and in the past two weeks I took trips to Austin and Gainesville to see college games, during which I listened to Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race to pass the time in the car.
For those of you who don’t know him already, Hamilton was probably the greatest American cyclist of the 2000s not named Lance Armstrong. He was one of Armstrong’s domestiques on the U.S. Postal Service team from 1999-2001, then went on to lead the CSC and Phonak teams himself. He won the Dauphiné Libéré in 2000, Liège-Bastogne- Liège in 2003 and the Olympic gold in the time trial in 2004. Hamilton’s accomplishments didn’t rival Armstrong’s for three reasons: 1) Armstrong didn’t get sanctioned for doping until after he’d retired, while Hamilton tested positive mid-career 2) Armstrong led a team relatively early, while Hamilton was a support rider until he was 30 and 3) injuries.
That last point is a huge part of the Tyler Hamilton legend by now, as his two marquee performances—a second-place finish in the 2002 Giro d’Italia and a fourth-place finish in the 2003 Tour de France—came after catastrophic injuries early in the three-week stage races. Hamilton fractured his shoulder early in the 2002 Giro and rode on, grinding 11 teeth down to the point where they needed to be recapped. A year later, in the Tour, he broke his collarbone on the first stage and spent the next three weeks traversing the country in unbearable pain, nursing an injury that almost always forces riders to quit the race and go home.
I don’t get why anyone would ride bicycles for a living. It sounds horrible. But I do get why Hamilton, who’d waited his whole career for a shot at Armstrong and the grand tours, and who’d trained all year for the Giro in 2002 and the Tour de France in 2003, would keep going.
To invest your whole life—and make no mistake, this is not a normal job; that’s what you need to do in order to be a professional athlete—in achieving a goal and then being forced to quit, not only before you’ve done it, but before you’ve had the chance to do it, has to be an unfathomable disappointment.
That’s what I thought of when I saw Kyle Schwarber lying on the warning track Thursday night. He had burst onto the scene last season in sensational fashion, then ended the year by playing humiliating defense in a playoff defeat. Imagine how much he wanted to get back out onto the field and build on that rookie year, to prove himself as a two-way player. Then Jean Segura drives the ball to the gap in left center. Dexter Fowler goes low, trying to avoid a collision, and winds up clipping Schwarber—who used to be a football player and had to know what had happened immediately—in the knee. Imagine the kinetic energy involved in a collision between two men that big, running that fast, and you can understand why Schwarber’s LCL and ACL gave way. After an offseason’s worth of hard work and anticipation, Schwarber lasted two games in 2016. He didn’t even get a hit, and now he’s done for the year.
Now consider what happened to Daniel Winkler yesterday. Go and watch the video. You’ll hear a lot about the violence of the traditional pitching motion, but that’s talk. This is evidence. What happened to Winkler isn’t tremendously uncommon among players recovering from Tommy John, but after wear and tear on his UCL had forced Winkler to undergo surgery that put him on the shelf for most of 2015, let’s talk about what happened inside his body.
Winkler spent 2015 rehabbing, working to get his arm—the source of his livelihood—back in working order, then, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, he twisted it with such force that the connective tissue pulled on the bone in his elbow with such force that the bone snapped. Think about that. The inside of a human elbow is only a couple inches wide, and human bones are incredibly strong, human ligaments and tendons incredibly flexible. But inside that tiny space, Winkler exerted such force as to rend apart his own insides. It’s like something out of a David Cronenberg movie.
Now watch the second half of the video. Winkler throws the pitch, then pulls his arm up against his torso like a wounded bird guarding a broken wing as he runs off the mound toward the dugout. He does it so quickly it seems instinctual, like he can outrun the pain. Then he collapses in the grass and Braves trainer Jeff Porter kneels beside him, hugs him and pats him on the back.
After almost two years of preparation, and a lifetime of dreaming, Winkler had finally made a big-league roster on Opening Day. He made it 1 1/3 innings before his own body destroyed itself with unthinkable force, in a storm of unimaginable pain.
Watching Winkler trying to get to his feet while Porter tried to comfort him, I understood Tyler Hamilton better than ever. I’m certain that if there were a way for Winkler to deflate his tires a little and grind his teeth for three weeks to get through it, to continue no matter what, he would have. Because the physical pain is bad enough, but the disappointment just feels unfair.
Thank you for reading
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