One year ago Monday I found myself leading off second base in the fifth inning of a close game. The catcher did not have a strong arm, and with a right-handed hitter up I knew I would steal third easily (There is a Cardinals related point to this post. Bear with me, please).
The pitcher delivered and I took off for third. The throw came in high, as expected, but slower than I anticipated. I was starting to slide when my brain registered the slow throw. For a split second I thought ‘I can make it standing up!’ and hesitated. In the next split second I determined to slide feet-first anyway, but my body was out of position and I landed heavily on my bent left ankle.
Despite the significant amount of pain, I thought it was just a bad sprain, so when the throw skipped past the third baseman and into left I got up and hobbled home. I was having no success walking it off, but because we only had 9 guys I had to stay in the game, and shifted to first base for the remainder.
Thus began a journey of limited mobility and pain, exacerbated by my inherent stubbornness. It only ended 5 months later after I visited a orthopedist discovered I had not just gotten a high ankle sprain, but had partially torn two ligaments.
As every baseball fan knows by now, Albert Pujols suffered a non- displaced fracture in his lower arm during Sunday’s win against Kansas City. Initial estimates put his recovery at 4-6 weeks. In yesterday’s Post Dispatch, Joe Strauss reported Pujols saying he ‘felt good’ and that he thought he could return to the team in 4 weeks. It was also a hot topic of discussion during last night’s nationally televised Cardinals/Phillies game.
If I could offer any advice at all to Albert it would simply be: Don’t Rush Back. Give Your Body Time To Heal.
At this point in my athletic ‘life-arc’, I am a weekend athlete. Sure, I hit the gym, but I play beer league softball and friendly baseball. Even so, I pushed my return from the ankle sprain. I was on crutches for 3 days and a hard brace for 2 weeks, and told not to play until 2 weeks had passed. As soon as it was up? I was back trying to hit and hobble during games. The allure of the field, the desire to return to competition, was powerful. If it was that strong for me I can only imagine how overpowering it must be for an elite athlete by Pujols. He and the Cardinal training staff have to resist.
The bone he broke is in his left hand. His bottom hand. His power hand. Immobilization for 4 weeks will cause the muscles in his forearm to atrophy. This is natural, but it also means he will not be able to restore that muscle and return to full strength immediately. I’d submit he won’t return to full strength this season but that depends on a lot of factors I have no control over or insight on. If he comes back too soon, and tries to pick up where he left off on 18 June, he runs a high risk of injuring some other part of his arm and really sapping his power going forward.
A famous example of a Cardinal coming back too early from injury, injuring another part of his body because he was trying to compensate for the pain of the original injury, and never being the same is Dizzy Dean. Remember his broken toe? He altered his mechanics to compensate and hurt his arm.
Albert will be frustrated if he comes back too soon by a lack of production, and so will many fans. Before my ankle injury I was a .300+ hitter. After? In the 11-12 games I played the rest of that calendar year I had 2 hits. Two. In like 35 at bats. It’s hard to hit when you can’t push off your back leg (In case you care, after 6 weeks of inactivity and another 6 weeks waiting for the next season to start my hitting prowess returned with a vengeance. But I digress).
This Cardinal team is best positioned to weather a significant Pujols injury like this since the 2004/2005 club. Holliday and Berkman have carried the Cardinals so far this year, and will continue to do so. David Freese is on the mend and expected back in 2 -3 weeks. Jon Jay has been a revelation this year. Yadier Molina has rebounded nicely from 2010, and Ryan Theriot has exceeded expectations offensively. The club will be able to produce without him. They can afford to let Pujols take the time he needs to heal.
I implore the Cardinals and Pujols: do the smart thing here. Don’t Rush Back. Let your body heal. Then go tear the league up in September.