After writing about baseball for ten years, I'm always searching for ways to describe oft-injured players. I've used "hamstrings of polenta" and concocted scenarios where guys like Nick Johnson are dragged around the bases in a full body cast attached to ropes, pulleys, and levers. There are only so many ways to suggest that a guy can't stay on the field, so it's only partly awful to have fun with it.
After 5 years of "always being hurt" with a torn capsule, Rich Harden last week had surgery, aiming to come back in 2013--healthy. Finally.
There are a lot of pitchers who can't stay healthy. Mark Prior could have been one of the best ever. Brandon Webb was winning Cy Youngs right up until he couldn't throw a baseball any more. Harden almost seems more tragic in a way, probably because he keeps coming back. It's the persistence that's especially upsetting in conjunction with the already disturbing idea of a pitcher who can't pitch.
It's not like after every one of Harden's injuries ends with him ripping off a Band-Aid, hopping in a car, and heading to the stadium seconds after an alarm clock rings. When he's not pitching, he's rehabbing. I'm not privy to the exact details of his specific rehab, but I'd wager that it's not fun. If I had to pick a few words that I'd think would describe it, I'd guess "grueling" and "uncomfortable" would be at the top of the list. There are probably months where it's hard for him to get the Crispix down from the top shelf.
And throughout the whole rehab process, there's hope. This time he'll stay healthy. Every time is this time. He's not doing that work to end up on the DL again. He's doing it because his body is made to pitch, even though it's pretty clear that his body is made to do anything but pitch. Just about every part of Harden's right arm is screaming at him to become a CPA, fireman, or nurse. But when he's healthy -- or when he's healthy's sketchy great-uncle who never quite earns your trust -- he looks like a human being who was born to pitch.
There's every pitcher with more than 100 starts and more than nine strikeouts per nine innings. It's not a perfect list to use for comparing across eras because hitters strike out more now, but it gives you some idea. You have Hall of Famers and Cy Young winners. And Oliver Perez, who probably knows the guy at the door. And then you have two of the most heart-wrenching what-ifs in recent history. Prior and Harden.
There are whispers of Prior signing minor-league deals every spring, and it's not like his rehab efforts were any less grueling or uncomfortable. But you never see him in the majors. Harden's shoulder is on some sort of circadian rhythm that allows him the chance to strike guys out for a couple of innings every year, just so you can get a glimpse of what it might be like to have a healthy Harden.
This surgery is supposed to be the one that fixes it. He's been playing with a torn shoulder capsule for years, and by missing the season, hopefully he can come back in 2013 as a relatively healthy pitcher. Here's hoping. It's hard to call something like this "tragic" -- it'll never stop being just a game. But it's still awful. Consistently and predictably awful. Makes you wish the damned nanobots would get here and stop this stuff from happening already.