Our old friend Jim Riggleman, taking his annual stint as interim manager of a pitiful team, said something the other day that caught my eye.
It caught my eye because I disagree so strongly with his sentiment. I think Jim is a good baseball man (a good man, period), and a good manager, but I think he’s underselling his players, and his profession, here.
According to the website masnsports.com, Riggleman (shown above getting thrown out of a game by Frank Drebin; or is that vice-president Joe Biden? Nah, it’s umpire Mike Reilly), essentially said that baseball is not a grueling or physically demanding sport. Here’s the money quote:
“I never like to use that word ‘fatigued’ or ‘tired,” he said. “I think it gets way over used in baseball. We’re not running up and down the court, we’re not playing football with equipment on in 100 degree temperature. It’s a baseball game; it’s not a physically taxing sport.”
He goes on and on, at one point saying, “My feeling is you ought to be ashamed of yourself if you get physically tired of playing baseball because it shouldn’t be that physically taxing. I could point to Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken, Jr. and I think they would be on my side in that argument, but I don’t expect everybody to be like that. I think guys need off days so that the other players can also stay sharp, so I won’t concede to the fatigue factor.”
I happen to think the physically taxing nature of baseball is grossly underrated. It’s not just the daily grind of playing every day for six months. Willie Mays, for one, would sometimes get so fatigued in the course of a season that he would virtually collapse. That’s what happens when you play all out day after day — and contrary to popular perception, most players do. It’s not just the immense amount of travel that teams do. Yes, they fly first class and stay in luxury hotels, but cross-country travel still take a heavy toll, particularly for a team like the Mariners that is isolated in the Northwest and logs so many air miles.
Mainly, though, baseball is just a tough, tough sport. It’s not violent like football (listen to George Carlin’s classic routine dilineating the differences between the two sports). But think of all the ways you can get beat up during the course of one game — sliding, having someone slide into you, diving after balls, running into walls, getting hit by pitches, getting hit by foul balls (just watch a hitter hop around in pain after they foul a ball off their shin or foot), getting hit by bad-hop grounders (hello, Adrian Beltre). I can only imagine how you and I would react if we took a 95 mph fastball off the knuckles or wrist or elbow. I’d be rolling on the ground, screaming in agony. It happens every day somewhere in the majors, and the players wince, shake their arm, and trot to first.
And those aches and pains aren’t given any time to heal, because there’s always a game to play the next day. You’d be amazed at the bruises and contusions that players just cope with, because they have no choice. Yes, baseball is physically taxing. We won’t even get into the act of pitching, which is an affront to the natural contortions of the human arm. There’s not a major-league pitcher alive who doesn’t ache to some extent as the season plods on. The only variance is how bad the pain gets, and how much he can take.
I checked Riggleman’s career stats to see how many games he played as a pro: 304 in four minor-league seasons, 1978-81. He never made it to the majors. The most games he played in one season was 127 one year at Double-A. So he never really experienced the grind of a 162-game MLB season, though he’s been around it enough to see the price that players pay. I must say I’m surprised that Riggleman, who has been around baseball teams as a player, coach, minor-league manager and major-league manager for 30 years, doesn’t have more of an appreciation for the grind — the blood, sweat and tears (and you can pronounce “tears” either way) — a major-league player endures.
(Photo by Associated Press)