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Thomas Boswell

The Weird, Wacky World Of Baseball Injuries

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; Page D01

Five-time batting champion Wade Boggs missed a week when he lost his balance putting on his cowboy boots and fell into a couch. Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons fell asleep in a rocking chair while talking to Rogers Hornsby and Bill Terry. While rocking as he snoozed, the 217-game winner crunched his pitching fingers under the chair. His month-long injury may have cost the '27 Giants a pennant. And Lefty Gomez, while knocking dirt from his spikes, smashed his ankle instead and was carried off the field.

So Sammy Sosa shouldn't feel too bad. Fluke injuries are nothing to sneeze at, especially in baseball, where the ridiculously improbable injury seems the rule, not the exception. Nonetheless, when Sosa sneezed twice while bending over in the Cubs clubhouse Sunday, sending his back into spasms and putting himself out of the lineup, he earned a spot on the all-time list.

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"It would've been better if I had run into the wall or we had a fight with somebody," said Sosa, who aggravated a back injury and appears headed to the disabled list.

Two weeks ago, the Cubs posted a "Grumpy" nameplate over the locker of Mark Grudzielanek, so perhaps adding "Sneezy" was only a matter of time. Now the Cubs' pitching rotation will have to decide whether it wants to be known as "Doc" Wood, "Happy" Prior, "Bashful" Zambrano, "Sleepy" Clement and "Dopey" Maddux.

Sosa now joins the great tradition of comic "disabled" Cubs outfielders, which is led by Jose Cardenal, who couldn't play on Opening Day in 1974 because he said he slept wrong and his eyelid was stuck shut. Two seasons earlier, Cardenal had told manager Whitey Lockman he couldn't play because crickets in his hotel room kept him up all night.

At least Sosa has witnesses who can attest to his story. Not so for Padres southpaw David Wells, who lost Sunday, then cut his right wrist and left palm that same evening in a "home accident."

"It was not a fight," said General Manager Kevin Towers, perhaps aware that Wells once broke his pitching hand in a street fight outside a bar after his mother's wake -- something about a comment concerning her days riding with the Hells Angels.

At least Wells is consistent. None of his injuries is ever boring. Two years ago, a very small man in a New York diner punched the enormous Wells in the face. The incident, which took place just before sunrise, involved threats with a butter knife.

Wells's most famous mishap came in last year's World Series. One day after he bragged that it didn't matter if he was fat because he had "a rubber arm," his back -- not made of rubber, but burdened with carrying his gut everywhere -- went into spasms and forced Wells to the (warm) showers after one inning.

Though he seems to have tried, Wells has never truly challenged the all-time-record missing-in-action excuse of Cardinals pitcher Flint Rhem, but who has? Rhem went AWOL at the height of the '30 pennant race. It wasn't his fault, he explained to Branch Rickey. Gamblers kidnapped him and forced him to drink bootleg whiskey for two days. Good pitching was in short supply, then as now, so manager Gabby Street said, "we can't disprove it," and put Rehm back in the rotation. Sixteen days after escaping the clutches of the demon-rum kidnappers, Rehm started Game 2 of the World Series.

In baseball, the tradition of injuries, and excuses for them, is so exotic that players simply tell the truth, no matter how preposterous. After all, if Vince Coleman could be eaten by an automated tarp before a World Series game, then Joaquin Andujar truly summed up the issue when he said, "There's one word that tells you everything about baseball: You never know."

Marty Cordova might have fibbed. Actually, maybe he should have. Instead, he couldn't play because he'd fallen asleep in a tanning bed and burned his face too badly. John Smoltz scalded his chest while ironing a shirt -- that he was wearing. Henry Cotto didn't see a teammate coming before he put that Q-Tip in his ear. Oops! How was Bret Barberie supposed to know that you temporarily lose your vision if you accidentally rub chili sauce in your eyes?

However, of all the game's documented, rather than apocryphal, self-inflicted injuries, the prize may go to Clarence "Climax" Blethen. A 30-year-old Red Sox rookie, Blethen thought that he looked older and meaner if he took out his false teeth when he pitched and kept them in his hip pocket. Yes, he forgot to put them back in his mouth. So, on Sept. 21, 1923, while sliding into second base to break up a double play, Climax Blethen bit himself in the butt.

In such a culture, how can baseball folk be anything except forgiving? It is just part of the game's lore, like not talking to a pitcher who has a no-hitter in progress. If Jim Palmer has to miss a start with a stiff neck because he forgot to bring his favorite pillow on a coast-to-coast flight, then so be it. If Denny McLain says he went to bed in perfect health and woke up with four dislocated toes, then that's just how it is. And when arachnophobic outfielder Glenallen Hill has a nightmare about spiders, falls out of bed and crashes through a glass table, that's just baseball. (Glenallen, wherever you are, hope you like "Spider-Man 2.")

Believe it or not, nobody was upset with Jason Isringhausen when he stabbed himself opening a package, although when he punched a trash can, people got a bit testy. Terry Harper was just doing his job when, standing in the on-deck circle, he wildly waved home a runner from third on a passed ball. And dislocated his shoulder. At least Harper was hurt in a good cause. What was knuckleball pitcher Steve Sparks's excuse for suffering the same injury -- while trying to tear a phone book in half?

Baseball takes these bizarre doings in stride. However, on rare occasions injuries seem to have a symbolism all their own. This season, the two oddest injuries of all may be the ones that prove most important in determining the World Series winner.

The most famously star-crossed franchises in the sport, the Red Sox and Cubs, have their best chance to win a World Series in eons. Both teams seemed ready to roll this spring. Then the best player on each team was injured before the season ever began. Neither pitcher Mark Prior of the Cubs nor two-time batting champion Nomar Garciaparra of the Red Sox has stepped on the field yet. Meantime, both teams are clawing to stay around the lead in their divisions.

In all of baseball history, which two franchises could best be said to have a perpetual Achilles' heel? The Cubs and Red Sox.

And what injuries are Prior and Garciaparra nursing week after week? That's right. Both have hurt their Achilles' heels.


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