It's one of the dumbest things I've seen as a fan of sports, the belief that it's beneficial to play through pain. Now, I'll admit that I'm guilty of it too. I've had softball games where I've had pulled hamstrings, shin splints, an elbow that I'm certain requires Tommy John surgery, and I've played through most of them (admittedly the hammies pretty much render me useless).
However, I'm just a softball player, my games don't mean anything. When you're a professional athlete though, it's a whole different world. You're being paid millions of dollars to play a game that's being watched by tens of thousands of fans. Your every move is scrutinized to no end. Joe Mauer knows exactly what I'm talking about.
It's humorous to me that some Twins fans get so upset at Mauer's inability to stay healthy or the fact that he doesn't play daily because of his various bumps and bruises. But when there's so much evidence that suggests that playing hurt doesn't actually benefit the team, then why is Mauer receiving so much vitriol?
Don't believe me? Let's just talk about some Twins in recent memory. I'm going to start with J.J. Hardy in his lone season as a Twin. He sustained an injury in May of 2010 when he jammed his wrist into the ground when sliding feet-first into third base, but then attempted to play through it. He did miss time in that same month and was eventually placed on the disabled list in June while hitting .217 with much less power than he had shown throughout his career. He did return and raised his batting average to .268 by the end of the season, but overall his offense was considered a disappointment as he hit only 6 home runs. After leaving the Twins, he hit 30 in his first season as a Baltimore Oriole while also acknowledging the Orioles did far more to treat his wrist than the Twins ever did, suggesting that he played the majority of 2010 while hurt. It certainly would explain why he had a then-career low isolated power (ISO) of .126.
2011 was Joe Mauer's infamous bilateral leg weakness season. Really it should have just been called "complications from offseason knee surgery" but the mysterious definition made its way to the media instead and it's been a joke in Minnesota ever since. Mauer batted .287/.360/.368, which overall wasn't that bad of a line but it also wasn't what Twins fans expected when Mauer signed his massive contract extension. It was pretty obvious that Mauer's legs weren't 100% for the season, not only from his lack of production but also because he tallied only 333 plate appearances that year.
We could also look at Justin Morneau that season. In 2010 Morneau suffered a concussion when he was kneed in the head while sliding into second base and he missed the rest of the season. He attempted to come back in 2011 but it was clear he wasn't his old self, hitting .227/.285/.333 in 288 plate appearances. In fact, he wasn't himself for the following two years, and it wasn't until he landed in Colorado this past season that he even resembled the player he once was.
In 2013, Josh Willingham was hurt for a good chunk of the season. He had a knee injury that he played through which eventually required arthroscopic surgery. He did have 471 plate appearances but hit only .208/.342/.368, a huge drop-off from his career year in 2012 when he debuted as a Twin by hitting .260/.366/.524.
This past season also featured a few Twins that attempted to play through their injuries. I'm convinced that Joe Mauer's concussion and oblique injury bothered him for more of the season than he's let on. Glen Perkins had an elbow issue for the last couple weeks of the year, but at least he admitted that he learned his lesson after allowing runs in 5 of his last 6 appearances. Ricky Nolasco was pretty bad in the first half of the season and then we learned he had a sore elbow ever since spring training. Finally, the latest story has been Chris Colabello, who developed a thumb issue after his surprising April start to the season. Certainly his hot start was far more than we should have expected from a healthy Colabello, but his fall was so sudden that hearing it was injury-related explains so much.
It's gotten to the point that for the past 5 years, when a player has had a shockingly terrible season, I instantly await the end-of-season news that he had been playing hurt the whole time. For players it's a pride thing where they feel their teammates are depending on them, they feel like they need to live up to their contract, or they're afraid of being sent back to the minor leagues. They try to justify it by saying that no one is 100% midseason, their teammates are sucking it up and so should they.
The fact that so many Twins were doing this over the past 5 years makes me feel like it was not a coincidence. The common denominator through this whole thing was Ron Gardenhire. I'm not the first to be making this connection either, as you get a few Twinkie Town articles and other posts when you fire "Ron Gardenhire injury culture" through the Internet. It sure seemed like the Twins players understood that if they didn't think their injury was serious, they should be on the field. Going back to my softball comparison from earlier, I didn't think my shin splints affected my performance. I could swing a bat just fine, I still ran as fast as usual, it just felt like my shin bones were shattering with every step. Wait, what?
If that last sentence sounded contradictory, well that was intentional. I was convinced that there was no change in my ability even though my shins were on fire every game. However, I bet that if I measured my performance from games I was hurt versus when I was healthy back in college, I bet there would be a discrepancy. Of course, records from my intramural softball games don't exist and I bet the sample size (probably 50 plate appearances per summer) wouldn't even be enough to be considered reliable.
For some reason players and fans think playing through the pain is a reasonable decision but the only evidence I can think of is Brad Radke. You know, the same Brad Radke whose shoulder hurt so much he couldn't even comb his hair anymore or pick up his children, but he still managed to take the mound every 5th day while posting a 4.32 ERA, 97 ERA- (just slightly above-average since 100 was average), and 2 fWAR. You know, the same Brad Radke that retired after that 2006 season because he had a torn labrum and a stress fracture. He is perhaps the one player I can think of that still performed well in spite of having a serious injury, the exception to the rule, but so many other players were convinced that they could also be that exception.
Now, we have no insider knowledge of what went on in the Twins clubhouse, but it sure seemed that Ron Gardenhire wanted his players to be on the field as much as possible, even to the detriment of their health and to their team. Even if you believe that Gardy was not the problem here, the Twins should still be looking for a new culture to develop among their players. If you're banged up and you still want to play, well, at the very least disclose what's nagging you. Be honest, don't minimize your symptoms because you know everyone else is not 100%. What matters most is that the Twins have the best team out on the field. There's no reward for being the toughest.