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On June 4, 2016, the New York Mets put 3B David Wright on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to May 30, and recalled Matt Reynolds from Triple-A.

On June 16, 2016, David Wright stripped out of his clothes, set them neatly inside a cabinet, and tied a flimsy hospital gown around his waist. He laid down on a hospital bed, signed forms, breathed. The doctors and nurses wheeled him into a metallic room bathed in white lights and soothing voices. They applied anesthesia, waited patiently, asked simple questions. David Wright didn't respond to one of them. Then they cut open the front of his neck, severed and extracted a damaged disc from his spine, and fused the two neighbors together with titanium hardware. They sutured the skin of his neck back together, took him back to a room, and later, he woke up and became a ballplayer again.

For the average person, this would be a life-altering event, the kind that earns prayers from congregations and home-cooked tupperware meals from concerned friends. It would dominate the person's life, their time, their conversation and concentration: the fear of surgery, the slow rehabilitation, the fear of a single random twinge in the night. With professional athletes, our expectations are different; we ignore the pain and the labor, begrudge them their paid medical leave. It’s baked into the calculus of the athletic career, a tax on the unimaginable sums of money they receive. Which is fine: If the invisible hand wields a scalpel sometimes, so be it. It’s not the transaction itself so much as our impressions of it that feel disassociated.

Baseball debate last week centered over whether Ichiro Suzuki or Pete Rose should be called “The Hit King.” It was an absurd discussion, and also inevitable: In a game repeated ad infinitum, its imagery endlessly overwritten, the most crucial aspect of any baseball player is his legacy. We observe, we opine, we crown. And even while we do this, the connotations attached to this particular phrase are ever-present. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually considers either player to be the best hitter of all time; in reality, “most hits” is just a level one fun fact. We know this, and get annoyed with ourselves for it, and yet we care anyway. We can’t help ourselves: we’re compelled to evaluate. The Hall of Fame exists because we need it to.

As David Wright practices turning his neck from side to side, engaging in the mind-numbing busywork of rehabilitation, his own chance at the Hall has faded from view. Through his age-30 season he’d accumulated 54.9 WARP, played in seven All-Star games and captained a team through the rocks and shoals of the New York Post back page. Instead, his career seems more likely to mirror another Big Apple institution in Don Mattingly, whose own body failed him at around the same turn. For both, their legacies center not around their accomplishments but around their conclusions.

As fans, we struggle with the juxtaposition of baseball and injury. In some ways pain is very much a virtue. Players who push themselves past their limits, who gut it out and sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of the team (and its fans) are revered. Those convalesced or compromised, those who can’t fulfill their obligations, are held in less favorable esteem. There is an understanding of extenuating circumstances, but it’s one that is difficult to maintain; in the end, the results will outlive their causes. David Wright slugged .374 in 2013, while the newspaper archives documenting his ailments have been lost to the archives.

But there’s something deeper, and darker, about our consideration of injury, one that extends beyond the game. Illness and injury do not only attack a person’s health; they also corrupt identity. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy portrays a man dying of an unknown malady, questioning why such misfortune might fall upon someone so good as himself, only to watch himself dead to his friends and family ahead of the expiration date. They are not evil, he realizes; it’s just that they, like he, cannot face death. Neither can we, on the diamond. The sudden pop of the shoulder, the wet cough of the consumptive not only remind us of our own mortality, but how capricious and unjust it is. It’s a terrifying concept, so much so that we build our own defenses against it.

In Susan Sontag’s 1977 essay "Illness as Metaphor" she warns against this explicitly: “Illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.” The trouble lies in our tendency to link effects to causes. In treating any malady, positivity is the first placebo, and nowhere is the power of positivity more powerful than in baseball. “A happy man does not get the plague,” the saying goes; another: “all hard work pays off in the end.” They’re proverbs meant to drive us forward, but in the end what this means is that when a player gets hurt—particularly, if they show themselves to be injury-prone—the reverse is necessarily proven. People who are ill or hurt are revealed to have some weakness of character, some flaw that brought about their own suffering. Victims of tuberculosis in the 19th century were thought to have passionate, passive dispositions; they were born without a certain vitality, an ability to live. Eventually that stereotype came to take on its own generalities, reached the level of fashion, and illness became bound to art, to the bright, short-lived flame.

It had no basis in reality. Sometimes people just get sick, sometimes people collide in foul territory and break ankles. There’s no reason, no virtue attached, no matter how desperately we wish otherwise. It’s random.

Someday, hopefully a decade from now, it will come time to evaluate David Wright. The process will require difficult questions: what is, exactly a David Wright? Is it the man who hit 30 home runs and played great defense at third in his prime? Is it the man who, whittled by age, started his swing before the ball left the pitcher’s hand? What face do we wear in the afterlife, what moment represents the sum of our moments? Or will it not be David Wright at all, will synecdoche have overtaken him to the point that all that exists of the man is a ruptured vertebrae?

And the ultimate question: What did he do to deserve this? Just as the Greeks had their colored humours, the romantics bred the tuberculosis inside their own lungs, the annoying cold a refusal to bundle and suck down the appropriate vitamins, so with the injured. Was there some mechanical twinge, an overreliance on a dangerous pitch, one stretch or one lap around the outfield too few for proper conditioning? Or do we accept that the longest-lived among our heroes, the Pete Roses and Nolan Ryans were simply more fortunate than the Grady Sizemores and the Brandon Webbs? Is there any answer that can satisfy us?

Perhaps someday science will peel away the mysteries of the injury-prone player, the genetics that make one set of hamstrings pull more often than another. It has done so for tuberculosis (though, as Carlos Guillen can attest, the stigma remains difficult to shake) only to be replaced by an even more enigmatic opponent in cancer. Understanding of the disease has led us to revisit social assumptions about consumptives; hopefully someday we can do the same. For now, baseball injuries remain in the 19th century, an obstacle that those with sufficient strength of will avoid or fight through. Hopefully, someday, we can separate physical frailty from supposed mental frailty, and stop associating the concept of being injured or injury-prone as a character flaw.

Thank you for reading

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