Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pic of the Week

Joe Mauer plays catch before Monday's game in Chicago.
This is a striking enough image — a player silhouetted against the late-season afternoon sky/stadium. That the player in the shadow is Joe Mauer is particularly apt in 2011.

This has been the most difficult season for Mauer since he lost most of his rookie season (2004) to a knee injury and surgery. He won't appear in even 100 games this year, and his slugging percentageis barely above his on-base percentage — which is itself a career worst. He's not playing, and when he does, he's not playing to his accustomed level.

That this discouraging season comes in the first year of his megacontract (eight years, $184 million) just ups the ante. That he is reluctant to talk specifically about whatever physical ailments are affecting his play fuels the recurrent chatter — particularly among a segment of Twin Cities columnists whose beat reporting days were chiefly spent marinating in the dehumanizing, sado-masochistic culture of the NFL — that Mauer is "soft."

I don't buy that label. Nobody reaches the athletic levels that Mauer has reached without a tremendous drive to go with the talent. These guys want to play. It's a core part of their identity.

Do you know the story of J.R. Richard? He was a big overpowering pitcher in the 1970s with the Houston Astros — a huge 6-foot-8 black guy with a big fastball, wicked slider, uncertain control and a reputation as an unpleasant personality. He led the league three times in walks, three times in wild pitches — and by the late 70s he was striking out 300 batters a year. He won 20 games in 1976, 18 in each of the next three, led the NL in ERA in 1979.

He was having his best season yet in 1980, and suddenly started coming out of games early complaining of arm problems. He was still dominating hitters, but instead of going eight or nine innings, it was 5 innings, 3.1, 6, 3.1 again. The Astros' medicos couldn't identify a problem. Columnists were ragging on him for being soft — most notably, and prominently, Dick Young in his Sporting News soapbox.

Then Richard had a stroke. A blood clot in his shoulder had broken loose and gone to his brain. He would never pitch again in the majors. And as memory serves, Young went after him again the next week in his TSN column: He wasn't hurt when he was coming out of games early, because if he was he wouldn't have been so effective.

Richard serves for me as a cautionary tale on the limits of our knowledge of the player. I figure it this way: If a player says he can't play, he can't play. I'm not in his body. I don't know how it feels.

I don't know what ails Mauer; I don't even know that he knows specifically what the problem is. Sports medicine today is far ahead of where it was when Richard was stricken, but there remain limits to our knowledge there too.

Mauer's critics, be they in print, on the airwaves or in casual conversation, have yet to convince me that they know better than he does what he's capable of doing. Mauer says he can't play. That's sufficient for me.

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