Caution Is The New Fear

I may be the only person alive who’s ever broken a bone while working at a radio station. I wasn’t even doing anything strenuous. I was just walking from one room to another when I turned around to go back to my office for something I forgot, caught my foot on a piece of paneling that was leaning against a counter, and tripped and fell. When I tried to catch myself on the doorway that was suddenly rushing toward my face, I fractured my left elbow. I’ll bet Casey Kasem never did anything like that.

Thanks to Washington Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the health of elbows has been a topic of much discussion as of late. At least Strasburg screwed his elbow up doing something worthwhile – pitching for a major league baseball team while earning more money than I’ll likely see in my entire lifetime. Then again, I only had to wear a sling for a couple of weeks; Strasburg had to basically have his whole elbow rebuilt.

A short summary of the Stephen Strasburg story goes something like this: High school phenom pitcher gets drafted by the Washington Nationals, blows through the minor league system in about five minutes’ time, becomes instant sensation with an electrifying major league debut, mangles elbow, has to have Tommy John surgery to repair damage, misses entire 2011 season, returns in 2012, and becomes ace of surprising Nationals’ team which has itself positioned for a playoff run this year.

If this were all Strasburg had done, however, he wouldn’t be the topic of discussion on every sports talk show in America (Well, at least the ones that aren’t talking non-stop about football right now…). In an attempt to protect the health and pitching longevity of their young star, the Nationals opted this week to shut Strasburg down for the rest of the season and, possibly, for the entire postseason as well. Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo had stated at the beginning of this season the team would shut Strasburg down after 160 innings, and (give or take a few innings) the Nationals made good on their promise.

In a strictly sports-related sense, this particular scenario can provide endless hours of debate. If you factor in the years when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos (and, before that, the years they were actually the Washington Nationals), they haven’t even sniffed the playoffs in years, and they just removed their best pitcher with the shot of a playoff success staring them in the face. Then again, Strasburg is only 24 years old, which means he and the team could have plenty more chances to achieve postseason glory. And then again…

Blah, blah, blah. Here’s what I think about the whole situation: The Washington Nationals are chicken. Unfortunately, they just seem to be following a popular trend these days – attempting to mask fear with “caution.”

A pitcher for a Major League Baseball team has the potential of mangling his arm every time he takes the mound. Sure, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery, but so did Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he’s not on any kind of pitch-count. I guess the argument here is that Wainwright is seven years older than Strasburg and doesn’t have as much career left, but he was still the Cardinals’ ace before he got injured. Beyond pitchers, though, any player at any position could incur a career-ending injury every time they take the field. In the case of Cardinal outfielder Juan Encarnacion, he was simply standing in the on-deck circle when his career came to an end.

Whether it’s from a lack of life skills or poor money management or just plain not wanting to grow up, athletes in every sport today seem terrified of having their careers cut short. In fairness to Strasburg, he was not happy with the decision by the Nationals front office to sit him down. That this type of thinking has spread into the management ranks, though, should indicate how rampant it has become, as even those with the reputation of wearing out players with alarming frequency are becoming gun-shy about placing their proven commodities in harm’s way.

What really worries me, though, is how this mindset is creeping into everyday life. I mean, think about it: I broke my arm walking down a hallway. It stands to reason I could possibly break my arm walking down any hallway now, since that bone is probably a little more brittle than before. Even if I survive the hallway, though, I’ll have to get in my truck eventually and drive somewhere, and we all know how many auto accidents occur every year. A lot of people get choked on food every year, so I better give up eating, too.

Every day, there are hundreds of thousands of reasons to be terrified of everything that moves. For those of us who grew up idolizing professional athletes as men-of-steel who could do all the glorious things we couldn’t, seeing a talent like Strasburg sidelined not by an injury but by the mere chance an injury could occur just seems wrong on every level. If we’re playing the law of chances, the past history of the Nationals suggests they won’t win the World Series this year, so why not just shut the whole team down at the end of the regular season? Someone might get hurt in the playoffs, after all.

So I say let the kid pitch. And I say if it looks like the golden ring is within your grasp, go after it. If you lose something in the process, at least you’ll know you tried. Play ball!

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