FORT MYERS, Fla. — I couldn’t wait to get back to Florida, back to baseball. I had to find out what was going on with all the small, strange injuries plaguing the men who play this glorious game.
Reading the paper back in Boston last week, I was stunned to learn that David Ortiz could not play spring training games because of “dehydration.’’ I wanted to rush down here with a case of Poland Spring for Big Papi, but then Sox manager John Farrell said there were a couple of other things going on with the star DH.
It turned out that Papi had the flu. He had “general soreness.’’ He has played in only six of 16 spring games and might be back by Thursday. Ortiz looked game-ready during batting practice before the Sox played the Cardinals at JetBlue Park Monday.
“It’s been a hotter-than-normal spring,’’ explained Farrell when asked about the dehydration. “But we’ll take it. It’s a lot better than what’s been going on back home this spring.’’
A couple of days after Ortiz was sidelined with dehydration, I read that Jon Lester had to skip a Cactus League start because of a “dead arm.’’ Again, I was mystified. The Cubs are paying Lester $155 million over the next six years, and he hasn’t pitched in a game yet, and now he’s out because of a “dead arm”? Yikes.
Don’t be haters, folks. It’s only baseball. It’s a seven-month, 162-game grind and the tweaks and twists are many.
Just don’t ask Dustin Pedroia if baseball players are softies. The Sox second baseman played with a broken bone in his hand during the 2007 playoffs and again at the end of the moribund 2012 season.
“Other sports are more physical,’’ Pedroia acknowledged. “I don’t think people understand that we play every day.
“Obviously, football guys are big, strong guys and they beat the hell out of each other, but they get six days to recover. We get six hours and here we go. Do it all again. That’s baseball.
“Our injuries are different. You slide into a bag and blow a finger up, like Nap [Mike Napoli] did, he’s got to play the next day.’’
It’s the goofy little stuff that gets attention during spring training. The March 9 issue of Sports Illustrated featured a full page of strange baseball injuries from the spring of 2015. Headlined “Spring Dings,’’’ the story said, “Some of baseball’s most bizarre injuries happen before the season even starts.’’
SI cited Tampa Bay pitcher Ronald Belisario, who fractured his shoulder getting out of a swimming pool in Venezuela; Toronto’s Michael Saunders, who tore cartilage in his knee when he stepped on an outfield sprinkler in Dunedin; and White Sox ace Chris Sale, who hurt his foot when he stepped out of his truck.
In Toronto, they are blaming the loss of their best pitcher, Marcus Stroman, on a dull drill called “pitchers’ fielding practice.” Known around the game as “PFP,” this is an early-spring “workout” that features a conga line of pitchers coming off the mound and covering first base on balls hit to the right side of the infield.
Bostonians who fly to Florida before the start of spring games feast on a steady diet of PFP in lieu of real action, and its tedium was highlighted in those days when NESN used to broadcast live spring training drills. So imagine the shock when Stroman torn an ACL during PFP.
“It was a freak thing,’’ said Farrell, a longtime pitching coach who managed the Jays for two seasons. “He changed direction on a bunt play. Unfortunately, injuries are going to be part of what takes place, but we don’t change the work that needs to be done for fear of getting hurt.’’
A few months ago, Boston sports talk radio masters Lou Merloni and Christian Fauria — both ex-professional athletes — got into a fierce debate about baseball vs. football after an interview in which Pedroia did his best to explain the rigors of hitting 95-mile-per-hour fastballs and staying on the field for 160 games.
Staying on the field is the challenge. Here in Fort Myers, Joe Kelly has a sore biceps. Christian Vasquez has a sore elbow. Shane Victorino feels a twinge when he swings the bat from the left side, so he’s giving up switch-hitting.
Napoli, who struggled mightily last year because of sleep apnea, looks great this spring after undergoing jaw surgery to correct the problem, but lately Nap’s right ankle has been barking. Meanwhile, the Sox are a little worried about the tweaked left hamstring of 39-year-old closer Koji Uehara.
“You monitor guys’ soreness,’’ said Farrell.“But I don’t know that we change our approach and go about our work with the goal of not trying to get hurt.’’
I checked with veteran Sox warriors Jerry Remy and Jim Rice. Remy’s career was shortened by multiple knee surgeries. Rice was the epitome of an “everyday player’’ during his reign of terror in the American League. Jim Ed played a team-record 163 games (including the one-game playoff) in his MVP season of 1978.
“You weren’t as quick to go on the disabled list back then,’’ said Rice. “You might not get a chance to come back. They’d give your job to somebody else.’’
“It’s really hard to play 162,’’ said Remy. “There’s nothing you can do about hamstrings. I think we have a lot of them because there’s so much standing around in our game. The one I never heard of when we played is the oblique. Never.’’
Last month, Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar was sidelined for a week after he strained an oblique muscle while sneezing.
“That might be because of the way they train now,’’ said Rice. “If you’re straining that muscle, maybe you’re not doing the right things to be ready.’’
As for “dead arm,’’ let’s leave it to Farrell, the former big league pitcher and pitching coach, to explain this curious malady:
“There’s a point in spring training with a starting pitcher, typically after his third start — you can almost mark it on the calender when it’s going to come. You work all winter to build up your base, and throwing takes place, and you get to a point where the body is not recovering as quick and you go to a little bit of a downturn. You go to step on it with your velocity and there’s nothing there.’’
Yeesh. I’d be afraid my fastball was suddenly gone. Like Henry’s 100-mile-per-hour fastball in “Rookie of the Year.’’
“No,’’ said Farrell. “You just have to have some understanding that it’s going to happen.’’
Dehydration. Dead arm. Obliques. These are things that are going to happen.
That’s baseball.Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com