Commercial fishing in the Bering Sea. Serving as a member of the United States Army in Afghanistan. Working on an oil rig in the Gulf Coast. Being a lion tamer. All of a sudden these jobs seem better for your health than being a closer in Major League baseball. Ask Ryan Madson, Andrew Bailey, Drew Storen and Brian Wilson. All of them are on the disabled list because their arms fell off.
Well, not literally, of course. But they can’t lift their pitching arms above their shoulder, have to walk around wearing a sling, or are unable to high five their five-year-olds without grimacing. Being the last-man-standing reliever is supposed to be a tougher job mentally than physically. It’s supposed to be about performing with grace under pressure, not crying after pitching a third of an inning.
This is an epidemic. One of the essential positions in modern day baseball is the closer. Teams need the shut-down man who can control the ninth inning and prevent comebacks. The best closers inspire so much confidence that their teammates come to think of them as Mr. Automatic. Once you give them the ball it’s all over for the other team. The reason the statistic most frequently applied to late-inning relievers is called a save is because that’s what the guy does…he saves victories.
A closer must be almost perfect. Blowing a save is a major sin and blowing too many saves (and that could be three) will likely provoke a manager into exiling you to sit in the corner to contemplate your misdeeds. Horror of horrors you might be relegated to set-up man, called upon to pitch in less-consequential circumstances like the seventh inning. Or you may be relegated to mop-up man, only being put in the game when your team is hopelessly behind.
Being a closer is partially about an attitude of invincibility, partially about readiness, and partially about physical tools. But if you can’t throw, you can’t get anything accomplished and Madson, Bailey, Storen and Wilson are nursing arms with less snap in them than a strand of cooked spaghetti.
Wilson is the San Francisco Giants closer. He owns the slot. He’s been a reliable guy. Then poof, one day his right elbow is shot and he is almost surely out for the season. So from having a set-in-stone spot filled, overnight the Giants went to being seriously worried how to cope for the rest of the season.
The Red Sox brought in Bailey to replace Jonathan Papelbon, who left in free agency. Bailey didn’t even make it out of spring training before being KO’d for at least several months. Not to worry, the Red Sox being smart shoppers in the off-season, had Mark Melancon in reserve. Only he lobbed nothing but beachballs to the plate. Is his arm dead, too? Not diagnosed, but his ego is. With an earned run average just shy of 50.00, Melancon was shipped to the minors.
Storen was the young closer for the Washington Nationals, one of the hottest teams out there. Only not because of Storen, who must rehab from elbow surgery.
Then there is Madson. Signed to a one-year deal in the off-season by the Cincinnati Reds as the final piece of their pitching staff, the newly signed free agent from the Phillies never threw a pitch that counted before going down for the season. Reds manager Dusty Baker was caught so off-guard by the development that originally he suggested he was going to adopt the dreaded closer-by-committee philosophy. The shouts were so loud against that idea they may have put a crack in the Great American Ballpark facade, so that was not his strategy of choice.
Although it could happen (most likely with Bailey) the odds are against baseball seeing any of those guys throw a pitch this summer. Teams are just hoping that what they have is not a communicable disease. For trainers, right now the ugliest words in the English language are, “You know, Doc, I get a funny feeling in my elbow every time I throw.”