It's easy to find scapegoats in sports. A bad call at first is the umpire's fault. A player gets injured after the third base coach sends him, you blame the third-base coach. A batter performs below expectations, you blame the hitting coach. Your pitching staff falters, you blame the pitching coach. Your batting order appears to be drawn out of a hat, you blame the manager. ... OK there might be something to that last one.
But the point is, finger-pointing is just what sports fans do when something doesn't go right.
The trainer isn't exempt.
So when a Tigers player is said to have a minor issue and just needs a little rest ... then ends up getting Tommy John Surgery or a tear in the shoulder, we look at Tigers trainer Kevin Rand and get our pointing finger ready. I know I saw it on my Twitter feed or heard it in conversations after this season's debacle with Zach Miner and Bobby Seay. I even thought it myself. But we really must rein ourselves in.
At least in a baseball game, we can feel pretty confident we know most of the information we need. There are stats to help us decide who should play, how much and where.. There's video of the game to help us figure out if the batter had no shot at scoring, or if the foot hit the bag before the ball lodged in the first-baseman's glove. We can see with our eye whether a fielder can get to a ball and how strong his arm is. Sure the eye can lie to you, but it is still useful information.
However, we really know very little about what's going on inside a player's body, nor what to do about it. We certainly can't see what's happening with our own eyes. This has never been more clear than when Joel Zumaya fractured his elbow throwing a pitch. Everyone's an expert and everyone had an opinion. He broke a finger tendon. He tore his elbow ligaments. He tore his shoulder. He broke his wrist or arm. You name it. Twitter and the message boards were ripe with speculation. But I don't remember anyone actually diagnosing a fractured "funnybone." And despite missing on speculation, everyone still wanted to weigh in on whether he could come back from the injury and how long it would take.
We don't know.
It's OK to admit that and let the experts be experts. Because even they don't know everything, with an incredible amount more information than the fan.
This was a point further reinforced in a piece by Ben Lindberg at Baseball Prospectus this week, which you don't need to have a subscription to read. He explained why a little forearm soreness one day could result in Tommy John Surgery later. The natural thing for a fan to think is, "How could the trainer miss that? Isn't it his job to figure that out?" but the health-care profession is not nearly so easy. He leads with a theoretical example that sounds awfully familiar.
(Q)uite likely our hero has suffered from arm trouble before, and worries all the more by virtue of his familiarity with his foe. A few days pass, and the results of an MRI seem to reveal no damage, or suggest only a partial tear of the all-important ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). A medical team prescribes a program of rest and rehabilitation. We follow along from afar as the convalescent’s life becomes a blur of long-toss sessions, simulated games, and, with a little luck, a rehab assignment. In some cases, a pitcher will even return to the major-league roster, either willfully ignoring or temporarily not experiencing a recurrence of his symptoms. With each successive hurdle cleared, we allow our belief that all will be well to take deeper root, until one dark day it happens—our man in uniform suffers a dreaded "setback." A twinge or two is all it takes to prompt some exploratory surgery, after which it’s announced that the damage was worse than believed—the ligament was torn all the time, and we can kiss those hoped-for innings goodbye.
Lindbergh said about 55 percent of pitchers who go under the knife for elbow-related surgery had their injuries described as soreness, inflammation, tendinitis, bone spurs or more, though he cautioned not all injuries are initially reported by the players.
The reason these seemingly innocuous situations become worse injuries?
In most cases, you wouldn't be able to see the damage without a microscope, but each pitch thrown off a major-league mound takes a toll on the arm that released it.
Another reason the pitchers are given a chance to climb back on the mound is the human element. If the team and the doctors were to decide immediately on surgery, the player would be out for a lengthy DL stint, as well as a long, painful rehab process. If it's just forearm stiffness or soreness or something else, it would be a pointless surgery. If it's truly a ligament that needs surgery, the truth will out, as they say.
As fans, we don't get to see the results of the MRIs and X-rays. We're not privvy to the descriptions of the pain the players give, the questions the trainers and doctors ask, and very few of us are trained to know how to diagnose problems and what to do next. (And I might add, those who are trained are smart enough to realize they shouldn't diagnose through their television sets.)
Is Kevin Rand a good or a bad trainer? I have no way of knowing, either way. But the people who hired him think he's doing a pretty good job and he's done it for a long time. I'm going to trust them.
So you know what? I, for one, resolve to completely step out of the back-seat training profession, and I hope you do, too.