It hurts to keep secrets Orioles pitchers hesitant to reveal pain

September 20, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CLEVELAND -- Baltimore Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald made no bones about it during an interview on May 16. His elbow was very sore. He was very concerned. But he apparently did not convey that to the team.

The next day he pitched nine innings -- nine very strong innings -- and defeated the California Angels for his second victory of the year. Seven days later, the club placed him on the 15-day disabled list with a sore elbow.

Tuesday in Boston, right-hander Jose Mesa told reporters after a so-so outing that his arm was only "80 percent," leaving room to wonder why he even went to the mound. The problem was, he told everyone else he felt fine and was ready to pitch. Wednesday, he assured manager John Oates that he has been experiencing only normal stiffness and wants to remain in the starting rotation.

What's a manager to do? If Mesa goes out next week and hurts his arm, club officials will be left to explain why they continued to pitch him. But the team certainly can't be expected to shut him down just because there has been speculation that he is pitching hurt, especially when there is evidence to the contrary.

Pitchers aren't always honest about this kind of thing, and managers aren't mind-readers. In the absence of hard medical information, Oates and the coaching staff have only to go on their own observations and the information the players relay to the them and to the training staff.

Mesa tells them he is fine. He is throwing as hard as ever. He needs to pitch if he is to develop into the solid starter the Orioles expect him to become. On the other hand, he has told some people his elbow hurts and he is only a couple of years removed from a radical elbow operation (though the soreness is not in the same area). There is no easy answer.

"All a pitcher has to do is come to me and say he doesn't feel like he can pitch," Oates said. "That's what Ben did [last week], and we shut him down for the rest of the season. Even unknowingly, if I hurt someone by sending him out there -- even unintentionally -- that would be very hard to live with."

The Orioles apparently will send Mesa to the mound next week. He was clocked at up to 94 miles per hour his last time out, which isn't bad for a pitcher who claims to have only 80 percent of his arm strength. By Oates calculations, that means that Mesa will be throwing 116 miles per hour when he returns to 100 percent.

"I can't wait to see that," Oates said.

He was not being cavalier about Mesa's physical well-being, but he can be forgiven for wondering why players sometimes allude to an injury after a disappointing performance.

"I'm not saying that is happening in this case," Oates said, "but all a guy has to do is tell us his arm is hurting . . . but before the fact, not after the fact. I'm never going to allow a guy to pitch if it is going to endanger his career."

McDonald suffered a bruised shoulder making a diving play in an Aug. 28 game against the Toronto Blue Jays. He pitched two more times before the shoulder soreness convinced the Orioles to call a halt to his season.

If that left the appearance that the club was slow to recognize the significance of the problem, appearances can be deceiving. McDonald felt some stiffness in his shoulder, but there was no reason to think it was anything abnormal until the soreness worsened and an arthrogram detected a small tear in his labrum.

"We all thought it was just shoulder soreness," McDonald said. "You have to pitch through soreness sometimes, but there is a fine line between pitching through soreness and pitching with real pain."

That distinction often has to be made by the pitcher himself. No trainer can tell a pitcher how his arm feels. Every pitching arm is different and every pitcher has a different pain threshold. But pain is the one thing that every pitcher has in common.

"If a pitcher went out there only the times when he felt 100 percent," left-hander Jeff Ballard said, "you wouldn't be going out there very often."

Ballard pitched through extreme elbow soreness during the 1990 season, all the while claiming that his arm was fine. He isn't sure it was the right thing to do, but he says that a lot of other pitchers would have done the same.

"A lot of times, you think you can pitch through something, and sometimes you can," he said. "The reason I still pitched in 1990 was because I felt I would be effective enough to be one of the top five starters. Maybe if I had it to do over again, I'd do it differently, but I never wanted to lose my spot in the rotation."

The problem, in some cases, is not so much a pitcher failing to be honest with his manager, but failing to be honest with himself.

"Sometimes, you have to be a mind-reader or a psychologist," Oates said.

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