I have a lot of time for Tom Seaver. He’s a stud, one of the best pitchers ever, and he sure as hell doesn’t need to listen to a guy with a career as short as mine to know it.
Fortunately, I don’t need a long career to tell Seaver to pipe down with his “today’s pitchers are babied” commentary. All I need to make that argument work is a look at how far sports medicine has come since Seaver was on the bump.
In case you don’t know, the Daily News did an interview with Seaver to get his thoughts on Matt Harvey’s UCL injury. During the interview Seaver fully expressed his views on pitching, saying Harvey’s injury was a derivative of today’s flawed pitching philosophy, aka, MLB pitchers being held to innings limits.
Believe me, you’ve heard Seaver’s comments before. The whole “back in my day pitchers just pitched, we weren’t babied, we didn’t have innings limits, and we were just fine” narrative isn’t new to Seaver. Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much. Seaver actually did use the words, “back in my day,” “kids these days,” “babied,” and, “nonsense.” All in all, it had the feel of one of Abraham Simpson’s signature rambles.
I take serious issue with Seaver's views. First, having a long career does not make the rambling, hyperbolic nonsense you’re espousing less nonsensical. Second, doctors — specifically ones who’ve done exhaustive testing and found rich evidence to support that not throwing gazillions of innings actually does help you remain healthy — should not be overruled by a baseball player, even a great one, with an opinion that hinges on logic like kids these days.
I hate when old warhorses say the best way to prevent injuries to players today is to have them go back in time and do what the players of old did. Then, to prove their point, they highlight all the old-timers who threw mindboggling amounts of innings compared to today’s totals, and did it simply because they threw a lot, and always threw a lot.
Bull. The reasons these old-timers threw a ton of innings is because they were genetic freaks, pure and simple. Throwing is an unnatural motion. It’s going to cause some guys to get hurt faster, or get hurt more severely than others. But, in the end, throwing always hurts you.
When I had my medical screening upon coming to the Blue Jays, I was told that ALL pitchers have damaged arms from throwing. Every. Single. One.
Why? Because the process breaks your arm down. Humans are not meant to throw a ball overhand, let alone as hard as professional pitchers do it, for as long as they do it. Throw long enough to get the pros and you have damage. The only questions are, how long can you do it, and how much damage can you take?
Back in Tom Seaver’s day — A day that started before Tommy John surgery was even a thing; when medication for pain was high-proof booze, repeated cortisone injections, Butazolidin and codeine (Koufax took the stuff in the fifth inning); when hundreds of bodies were brought into spring training and, if they broke, were sent home because there was no way to fix them — baseball was different. Different as in medically ignorant, not different as in full of real men and not little babies.
But hey, if you don’t want to take my word for it because I fall into the “babies” category career-wise, and you still believe that long baseball careers are a trump card to medical data and sports science, I offer this:
“Back then, you did what you could to be out on the field,” said Jim Palmer, who pitched for the Baltimore Orioles from 1965 to 1984. “It didn’t make us any better than these guys. They’re terrific players who play their hearts out. It’s just a different era.”
Then, speaking of his injured contemporaries, Palmer added this:
“He probably tore his ulnar collateral ligament, but nobody knew,” Palmer said. “It was just, ‘He has a bad elbow.’ Was it treatable? Nobody ever knew. You just tried to pitch through it and when you couldn’t get anybody out, your career was over.”
During the Seaver and Palmer era, baseball was uneducated and medically inept. There may very well have been other Tom Seavers out there during those years. Other Matt Harveys or Roy Halladays, or, hell, any great pitcher you can think of and maybe some you can't. But, because they weren’t physically capable of surviving the grind of baseball during that time — a grind that made back-to-back starts and hundreds upon hundreds of pitches the norm — they fell by the wayside.
It’s convenient to point out the greats to use as examples. But it’s also convenient to leave out the thousands who fell apart. I know about the talent that survived, what about the talent that didn’t? No one ever seems to remember them, not even some of the guys who played alongside them.
Today’s sports medicine allows baseball to take risks on incredible talent that the baseball of old could not. If a player breaks today, he can be fixed.
Yes, the injuries are frustrating and yes, it’s easy to point to the totals of the old lions of the game. But the truth is, if you can take a guy with Tom Seaver’s stuff but not his resiliency, spend two or three years fixing him over a productive 15-year career, that’s still more profitable than having him for two years, watching him break, telling him you don’t know how to fix it, and wishing him luck in the used car industry.