I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to tell you folks how to react to the latest health issue that has struck Franklin Gutierrez — tightness in his hamstring that forced him out of yesterday’s game, just the second he’s played since coming off a long stint on the disabled list.
What I will do, though, is tell you how I’ve decided to resist the temptation for humor, ridicule, disdain or any of the other reactions I’ve been seeing, and hearing, about Gutierrez. It’s an ongoing theme with the outfielder, because he always seems to be hurt or ill. It’s frustrating; I get that. The little tease he provided on Friday — a homer and double and the usual graceful defense in center field — drove home how much the Mariners have missed Gutierrez. And I fully admit that I’ve thrown in a wisecrack or two over the years. On Friday, I made a snarky comment via twitter when Gutierrez dived after a fly ball, noting that yes, indeed, he actually got up. And I had to refrain myself from doing it again, just as I’ve tried (not always successfully) to resist the temptation during his rehabs to pile on with snide comments. A medium like Twitter makes it really easy– too easy, perhaps — to just dash off a quip.
I try to keep a couple of things in mind. One, Gutierrez (or any other player in that situation) is human, and he’s as frustrated as anyone. In covering sports for more than 30 years, I’ve always tried to act with the assumption that players’ injuries are real unless there are reasons that come to light to believe otherwise. It has always struck me as dangerous, unfair and even reckless to make value judgments about someone else’s pain tolerance or recovery speed, or even more so to label them “soft” or “fragile.” I’m sure there are indeed some players who are tougher than others; but I’m also sure there are some very tough and rugged players whose body simply breaks down at a higher rate than others, for whatever reason. It’s not a character flaw; it’s not fragility; it’s genetics. I’m old enough to remember the whole debacle of James Rodney Richard, the superb Astros’ pitcher whose ongoing complaints of a sore arm were met with skepticism and eyerolls — until he suffered a near-fatal stroke. I’ve always used that case to try to inform my reaction to players whose injuries are somehow viewed as indicators of either hypochondria or an inability to play through pain.
In Gutierrez’s case, it sounds like we’re dealing with some serious stuff — again. This is a guy who a couple of years ago endured months of stomach issues while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. They finally settled on a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which those who are unfortunate enough to share that malady will attest can be a miserably painful and debilitating condition — one that can be very tricky to diagnose and keep under control. Prior to that, Gutierrez played 153 games in 2009 and 152 in 2010, marks of a durable player. And then he got sick And now he seems to have another complex medical condition going that extends beyond merely “breaking down”; as Gutierrez described it to reporters on Friday, it’s a genetic blood issue that caused inflammation in his joints and arthritis-like symptoms, even inflammation in his eyes. He said that once doctors figured it out, he finally got medicine that, after a few weeks, eased the pain and allowed him to play every day.
I’m no physician, but it sounds to me like Gutierrez has had legitimate medical causes for many of his extended absences. He also seems to have had a lot of bad luck, too, as when he suffered a concussion last year from being hit in the head by a pickoff attempt. That’s flukey and unfortunate — but no reflection on Gutierrez.
Now Gutierrez, two games into his return, is on health watch again. Given his history, that makes him an easy target — almost an irresistible one. But speaking for myself here, I’m going to try to resist the temptation, and stifle the snark.