On injuries as 'betrayal,' Joe Mauer edition

I was barely past my missive on Yu Darvish, apologising for a too-long-undetectable elbow injury, when I spotted this tweet from Sports Illustrated's Jay Jaffe: "I'm continually amazed by the extent to which some Twins fans resent Joe Mauer. He gave his body in service of a Hall of Fame-worthy career, yet the $ he accepted from billionaire owners to remain w/his hometown team is too much for some tastes, waaah waaaah."

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It's important to know that Jaffe is one of the most acute commentators of baseball today; The Cooperstown Casebook, of which he's the author, is the best volume analyzing the Hall of Fame and its worthies and less-than-worthies since Bill James's The Politics of Glory. And if he's saying it's a terrible look when fans dump on a player who's suffered one after another injury since signing a big deal or big extension, we ought to listen. Hard.

Mauer swatted his way into the Twins' record book with a base hit on a hit-and-run play last Friday night. The knock tied him with Hall of Famer Rod Carew on the club's all-time hit list; the only man ahead of Mauer on that list is Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. And he may not get to Puckett's volume, either. He needs 218 hits to tie Puckett. He'd need two more healthy seasons at least to do it, but the St. Paul Pioneer-Press says he hasn't even made up his mind about 2019 just yet. If at all.

That yummy contract extension the catcher-turned-first-baseman signed after his Most Valuable Player season? It expires at the end of this season. And with the Twins in a re-build, Mauer doesn't want to think past the game to come on a given day now. At age 35 and with his injury history, it's probably the most sensible way to think. He may not even be thinking that he's within striking distance of tying another Hall of Famer, Harmon Killebrew, for the most times reaching base of any Twin.


Somehow, some way, the injuries to come after 2009 haven't eroded Mauer's Hall of Fame case too heavily. Jaffe's own JAWS measure ranks him the number seven catcher, ever. Ever. He's 10 points shy of the average Hall of Famer according to Bill James's Hall of Fame batting standards, and eight points shy of a likely Hall of Famer on James's Hall of Fame batting monitor measurement.

But according to Jaffe, Joe and Jane Twins Fan couldn't care less. They see a guy who took the millions and turned into a bowl of jelly. They barely see the guy who looked like the second coming of Yogi Berra behind and at the plate, whose brains got scrambled with a few concussions, and whose lower back and knees took a beating while he did nothing untoward other than continue trying to play the game productively. They barely see the guy who led the American League in on-base percentage the season after complications from knee surgery plus a bout with pneumonia ruined a season for him.

All Joe and Jane Twins Fan see is the guy who will have been paid $184 million for eight years including this season and, as Jaffe noted, put up Gene Larkin-type numbers when all was said and done. Batting average may be devalued as a statistic because it tells you only how often a man hit, not what the hits produced, but there's something to be said for a guy who managed to be a .306 lifetime hitter (Mauer's average as of this writing) despite the brain scramblings, lower back issues, and knee complications.

Meet Joe and Jane Phillies Fan. Ryan Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension as the 2010 season got underway.

Year One: Shook off an ankle sprain to become the first Phillie to put up five straight 30+ home run/100+ runs batted in seasons.

Year Two: A sixth straight such season. Then, disaster, grounding out to end a National League division series against the Cardinals, he suffered a torn Achilles tendon running out the ball in play. He missed the first third of 2012 while still recovering, struggled to find his form the rest of the way until a toe fracture put paid to his season with just a couple of days left.

2013: Tore his left meniscus, missed the rest of the season. He was never even close to the terror he'd been prior to 2012. And it wasn't his fault.

While writing about Darvish, I only mentioned some of the roll of big-deal free agents who ran into the injury bug after signing big deals. (I went into a little detail about the ill-fated Donnie Moore and the subsequent, sad case of Darren Dreifort). Here's a more detailed look at those and a couple other men who only thought they had it made:

Andy Messersmith: The Dodger pitcher who finished what Curt Flood and Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter started in the first place. (Flood challenged the reserve clause and failed; Hunter showed the world what a top of the line player could make on a truly open market after A's owner Charlie Finley reneged on contracted-for insurance payments, earning Hunter his free agency.) Won the end of the abuse of the reserve clause once and for all. He missed spring training 1976 when most clubs feared the ramifications of signing him (and a couple made farces out of negotiations), until the Braves signed him for three years and $1 million plus the no-trade clause, the lack of which triggered his assault on the reserve clause in the first place.

Messersmith struggled to find his normal pitching form on a terrible club; assorted leg injuries and fan abuse that sometimes got physical didn't help. The following season, still struggling, he fell on his elbow fielding a grounder, and missed the rest of the season. Dealt to the Yankees, Messersmith looked like he was finding what made him in the first place. Until ... shoulder separation making a play in the infield. Other than a brief return to the Dodgers, his career was finished.

Don Gullett: The pitching star of the Big Red Machine already had a serious injury history when, after he played out 1976 under the new free agency agreement following the Messersmith case, Gullett signed for six years and $2 million. Year One: He suffered an ankle sprain, a neck muscle pull, then missed six weeks with shoulder trouble ... but still led the American League in winning percentage and pitched well in the postseason. Year Two: His shoulder kept him out until June; he pitched and couldn't get out of the first inning. Turned out he had a shredded rotator cuff and surgery for it near the season's end, but he couldn't pitch again. Career over.

Wayne Garland: The Indians jumped after his 20-game winning season in Baltimore and signed the right-hander to 10 years and $2 million. ("Jerry," he told his agent Jerry Kapstein, "I'm not worth it." Replied Kapstein, "Well, obviously, someone thinks you are.") Garland made the classic mistake of over-exertion trying to live up to the deal and ruined his shoulder in the process. Though he put up with a certain volume of fan abuse early on, in time Indians fans rallied toward him when they realized the pain through which he tried to pitch. Garland, too, suffered a rotator cuff tear for which the surgery at the time wasn't what it became. He was released in 1982 with four years left on his deal.

"Garland owns a niche as a $2.3 million man," wrote Mike Sully of the Los Angeles Times a few years later. "The question is whether it's a price he received, or one he had to pay."


Johan Santana: Essentially, as the 21st Century got underway, Santana was Clayton Kershaw before Kershaw was Kershaw. And he may have been better. The Twins dealt him to the Mets during spring training 2008 and the Mets signed him to a delicious six-year, $137.5 million contract to complete the deal. Year One: Third in the National League's Cy Young Award race. Year Two: Went down for the season in July after suffering bone chips in his pitching elbow. Year Three: Shook off early season struggles to cruise into September until an anterior muscle tear in his pitching shoulder put paid to that season and to Year Four, which he missed entirely while recuperating and rehabbing. Year Five: Opened with a 2.75 ERA and broke the Mets' major league-leading drought with a no-hitter against the Cardinals in which his pitch load (134, the most of any start in his career to that point) alarmed a lot of people, even old-schoolers to whom pitch counts are just another plot to undermine the grand old game.

Sure enough, they were on to something: A right ankle sprain in mid-July; lower back inflammation in mid-August, and season over. The following season: Re-tore his anterior shoulder capsule. Season gone; Achilles tear and subsequent shoulder issues (again) ended a couple of comeback bids in the Orioles and Blue Jays organizations. The injuries finally ended his career and probably quashed the Hall of Fame case of arguably the best pitcher in baseball in the first decade of this century.

Jason Bay: I forgot to mention him in the earlier piece, but I shouldn't have. After becoming a Pirates' star and having an even more monstrous season after his trade to the Red Sox, Bay hit free agency and signed with the Mets for four years and $66 million. His first Mets season began with big promise but ended when he smashed into the right field wall going for a catch against the Dodgers. Concussion and season over. His return was pockmarked by rib injuries and a second concussion, this time against the Reds; the hit resulted in an inside-the-park home run. 

Bay surprisingly agreed to let the Mets terminate his contract after 2012 when it still had three years to go. His Mets manager, Terry Collins, spoke warmly of him as a player who worked his tail off to overcome the injuries. After a comeback in Seattle was aborted in July 2013, Bay pondered his options, what remained of them, and retired officially the following March.

Carl Crawford: The outfielder signed for megabucks with the Red Sox: seven years, $142 million, beginning in 2011. While half the world seemed to wonder if the Red Sox hadn't been fleeced, it turned out Crawford was playing through arm injuries and reluctant to speak up about them, particularly during the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012, for fear of being denounced as a quitter. He ended up undergoing Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm in August 2012; went to the Dodgers in the blockbuster that also sent disgruntled pitcher Josh Beckett and likeable slugger Adrian Gonzalez out west.

Injuries sapped what remained of Crawford's skills the rest of his career, which ended after 2016. It was a sad finish for the man who was a four-time All-Star and stolen base champion and set a number of Tampa Bay franchise records, while once being named the face of that franchise in an ESPN poll.

Mark Teixiera: He didn't exactly cheat the Yankees out of $180 million for eight years, but injuries interfered with him often enough that they probably stopped him from solidifying a Hall of Fame case, even if they didn't stop him from earning a World Series ring in 2009.


Matt Cain: Signed a five-year, $112 million extension with the Giants that would begin in 2013. The deal included a $21 million option to vest in 2018 if he got through the deal without elbow or shoulder trouble in 2017. The option never even became a topic. Despite his 2012 perfect game (he tied Sandy Koufax's record for strikeouts in a perfecto, with 14), and a dominant first half that got him named the All-Star Game's starting pitcher, Cain would hit the DL for the first time in his career in the first year of the extension when he took a liner off his pitching arm.

He dealt with elbow bone chips, an ankle bone spur, an elbow flexor tendon injury, and hamstring issues the next few years, admitting at one point that he pitched his first 10 years with the bone chips but adding they hadn't become problematic until his 2014 surgery. Cain retired at the end of 2017.

Albert Pujols: Signed with the Angels for Alex Rodriguez time and money after posting the bulk of his Hall of Fame case in St. Louis. Ran into one after another heel and leg issue from that point forward. He's managed to slug his way into the 600 home run club (he'd already joined the 500 club as an Angel, too), but his heel and legs have blocked arguably the greatest first baseman ever to play the game from doing anything much else beyond slugging as an Angel.

What's the point? Wake up, Twins fans who think Mauer took the fortunes and "betrayed" you. Not to mention any Braves, Yankees, Indians, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox, Giants, or Angels fans who think Messersmith, Gullett, Garland, Howard, Santana, Bay, Crawford, Teixiera, Cain, or Pujols took the fortunes and "betrayed" them, too. When the body betrays anyone despite their best efforts, or while giving their best efforts — and there's no credible accusation to be made that Mauer or any of the men reviewed above gave anything less than their best despite their bodies' reactions — think of how you'd feel if you know you're doing the best with what you have but someone decides you're goldbricking regardless.

Didn't think you'd feel good about that, either.

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