Kapler: Playing through pain, injuries are catch-22 for athletes
NOV 25, 2013 4:57p ET
Athletic toughness is extraordinarily difficult to quantify. There is no greater proof than what I'll refer to as rage by the batting cage.
Ryan Kalish seems tough. He was a standout QB for his high school football team, and at 6-foot and 215 pounds he fit the physical profile of a strong safety which he played when his team occupied the defensive side of the ball.
His father was a Marine and consistently filled Ryan's vessel with structure and routine while vehemently stressing work ethic as paramount to success. Ryan's dad taught him to be emotional, but to keep his emotions in check on the baseball field.
"Ryan, If I show up in the eighth inning of a game, I shouldn't be able to tell if your are 0 for 4 or 4 for 4," his father told him.
In 2007, during minor league spring training, Ryan lost control of said emotions in a physical confrontation with Jason Place, the Red Sox's first-round selection in the 2006 draft.
Kalish noticed that Place was not allowing his batting practice group to have a say in the order in which they hit. In fact, Jason jumped in the cage first daily and his behavior rode the nerves of his teammates. The group let it slide until the lineup stopped performing well in games, at which point, they collectively decided to take control and alter the BP order.
Ryan took the lead. He carefully approached Jason and politely suggested that they shake things up a bit, if only to see if the baseball Gods would think highly of such a sacrifice. Maybe if another member of the BP group took his swings first, it would alter the team's mojo.
"I hit first," Jason told a surprised Ryan.
Ryan walked away shaking his head in disbelief until rage took over and his blood began to boil. He approached Place a few more times in an attempt to feel less disrespected, but was met with the same response. That's when Ryan turned physical.
"I pushed his shoulder so that he could not turn away and in the same motion I punched him in the face. The rest is a blur."
Jason's teammates didn't think highly of him or his attitude that spring and — having been in that camp as a manager — I can vouch for the fact that Ryan developed the reputation of being somewhat heroic for how he handled Place. Ryan had indeed earned the badge as athletically tough. Right or wrong, that was the interpretation of both players and staff members.
The first time I witnessed Ryan play that spring, I desperately wanted him to make the Greenville club that I would be managing. I desired the opportunity to witness his act consistently, and immediately made the internal assessment that he was cut from the same cloth as Trot Nixon, my former teammate in Boston. Ryan, like Trot played with fierce athleticism and a clear fortitude.
Ryan didn't play for me that year. He was instead assigned to Lowell in the NY-Penn League, where he performed admirably in a small sample. He continued a quality progression through the system in the years following, culminating with his arrival in Boston in 2010 as a 22-year-old and grabbing the attention of the Fenway Faithful with his gritty style.
It certainly looked like he was going to establish himself as a contributor if he was able to stay healthy. Unfortunately, he wasn't. MRIs and anti-inflammatory meds became far too familiar. He hasn't stayed healthy since and has suffered from anxiety in addition to his physical issues.
Because of this, Kalish has been slapped with the unenviable label of "injury prone," and as there is a perceived lack of mental toughness in the baseball community, no player wants to fall into this bucket and many deny the idea that they might be doing just that.
"There is definitely a real ‘injury prone' type of person, but there are also many other factors," an ex-head trainer of a prominent MLB team told me.
The conversation reminded me of my former organization-mate, Rocco Baldelli, who endured years of folks calling him "soft" while he suffered through improperly diagnosed medical issues before finally finding out that he had Mitochondrial Disease.
The baseball world had unfairly decided that Rocco wasn't able to endure pain as well as others. Rocco is a close friend and I can vouch for the fact that he's one of the toughest individuals in the game.
"Sometimes it isn't a bad tissue thing, it is a brain thing and sometimes it is a business thing. People have different perceptions of what is an ‘injury,'" the trainer said.
"Some players won't play unless they're 100 percent. Sometimes this is their nature and sometimes it is the business of baseball. There is too much money involved and current players don't want to play at less than 100 percent and risk performing poorly. They have found you can get paid regardless of DL days if your stats are good enough."
Agents are also a factor, often times advising players to not play through pain.
This postseason after being drilled in the ribs by a fastball from St. Louis' Joe Kelly, Hanley Ramirez weaved in and out of availability for the Dodgers and displayed less than healthy mannerisms when he did crack the lineup. Our panel at Fox Sports Live discussed Hanley at length during that time period and the adjectives ran the gamut between "low pain tolerance" and "courageous."
Without actually putting on Hanley's skin, we can't begin to comprehend how much he was enduring.
My agent and close friend, Paul Cohen, and I had many conversations throughout my career about injuries. He was clear and concise.
"Kap, can you make the injury worse?" he'd ask. "If so, don't play."
He was adamant that there is no loyalty from the club to the player and he always kept long-term health in mind.
Paul was right-on in his assertion that while clubs evaluate a players' toughness by their own internal research and intuition, they don't necessarily reward the act of playing through injury, particularly if the numbers of the athlete suffer during that timeframe.
I certainly didn't always heed his advice, but in hindsight, I realize that I cost myself considerable cash and potentially MLB service time. Additionally, I've heard stories of agents suggesting surgery to acquire service time in the Big Leagues and collect salary, even when rehab is an option. It's the faculty of a player representative to be completely unemotional and focused on business.
One of the first things I learned from veteran teammates — as a minor league player in the Detroit Tigers organization — was that you do everything in your power to stay out of the training room. It's a survival of the fittest thing.
Green base ballers don't want to be viewed as unhealthy. Young players are constantly judged and evaluated on every layer of their being.
I knew after being drafted in the 57th round that I would be swiftly replaced if I wasn't able to play through a considerable amount of pain in the minor leagues, and ultimately until I established myself as a productive, stable member of MLB .
In fact, the player I replaced in the lineup to get my first shot at regular playing time for the Jamestown Jammers (Detroit Tigers affiliate) in 1995 was a high-round draft pick that ironically had a pinky issue that kept him off the field for several games.
I avoided talking to trainers as much as humanly possible. I knew inherently that they were in direct contact with the manager and the general manager and my toughness was being evaluated daily. I tore muscles because I didn't want to say I was in pain. Trainers asked me how I was. I simply defaulted to "great."
I remember knowing that if I played a game in early 2000 for the Texas Rangers, I would blow out my quad. It was that tight. I hemmed and hawed and finally approached my skipper, the late Johnny Oates.
"Johnny, I need one day," I said, knowing I needed more like a week. "I'm really sorry."
"Kap, you play hard for me every day," Oates replied. "No problem. You'll be back in there tomorrow."
I worried all night that I'd never have an opportunity to play daily again because I took myself out of the lineup. I began playing again through pain and tightness and eventually tore that quad and landed on the DL anyhow.
Was I tough or irrational and driven by emotion? I guess the latter.