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The Pujols Injury: Suspicious…or Something Else?

Many national media guys are hard on Albert’s heels for his sensational return from the disabled list in just 16 days after (get this)…cracking his freaking arm. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports has an excellent take on the nature of this criticism without actually criticizing Pujols or supporting him (CLICK HERE FOR JEFF’S TAKE). Because Jeff does such a superb job of covering the topic, I won’t waste time on it…except to make one point:

It should be noted that Albert did not experience the typical “wrist break” that is so feared by MLB hitters…the kind that can so easily lead to ongoing swing issues. That kind of break – the bad one – is a break in the multiple metacarpal bones in a player’s wrist (between the forearm and the hand). Albert’s break, instead, was to the actual forearm bone. However, because Albert’s break was at the end/tip of the bone (and therefore in the wrist “area”), it had to be called a “wrist” injury. This type of break is much less likely to lead to ongoing swing issues. Unfortunately, many national critics won’t bother to research that far. They read “wrist break” and instantly assume it’s to the metacarpals – which, of course, leads to all kinds of assumptions, timetables, and expectations that don’t necessarily apply to Albert’s injury at all.

Okay…on to the point of this post…my take, as a biased Cardinals fan, on the Albert Pujols injury and subsequent early return from it.

Albert Pujols is one competitive, hard-nosed, and just plain tough S.O.B. (no offense to his mother). He’s been known to “heal” faster than most players (he’s done so on at least two previous occasions), remarkably returning from the disabled list much earlier than expected. It’s become such a well-known fact of Pujols’ bio that Hall of Fame writer Rick Hummel (“The Commish”) of the Post Dispatch unequivocably stated Albert would be back in the second series against the Reds after the All-Star Break – weeks before he was expected to return. Poor Rick. Albert returned even faster.

Now, all the questions are circling around how he healed so quickly and why his body responds so differently than other MLB players. Is it because of HGH? Is it because of some radical, legal, but ultimately questionable procedure better left behind closed doors? Or is it because the Cardinals are – once again – guilty of shady marketing practices aimed at making their superhuman superstar look even more…well…superhuman?

Really, no one but Albert and the Cardinals can answer those questions. Personally, I don’t think it’s drugs (HGH or otherwise) for various reasons. But I also think the basic assumption is flawed. Let’s be clear here…Albert’s wrist is not “healed.” Sure, he was “medically cleared to play” (notice all the “quote” marks in this post? I know…hurts my eyes, too…but it fits here), but does that actually translate to a literal “healed” in the everyday sense of the word?

My take? No. And this is critical to the argument.

Most outside of St. Louis – and many inside – simply do not understand Albert’s unique dedication to the game…to playing the game. They don’t see his fire, his competitive nature…his boiling fury when he’s not allowed to play in the game he loves. It nearly kills him. Sure, you hear this about other MLB players, but I’m here to tell you…it’s a different thing for him. Albert’s fire burns hotter in the furnace of a midwest summer.

Here…let me explain.

A typical MLB player, if they experience the same injury as Albert, consults the medical staff, says, “When can I play? I wanna’ play.” The medical staff confers with the team and says, “4 to 6 weeks…if things go well.” They’re told to leave it alone, wrap it up, and don’t even think about resuming baseball-related activities until the 4-week mark. The MLB player: “Okay…you sure? Oh, you’re sure? Okay…4 weeks.” And then they follow the prescribed timetable.

This does not make them weak, it does not suggest a low pain tolerance, and it does not mean they are not dedicated/competitive/or any other superfluous adjectives we like to attach to our baseball heroes. They are likely all of that.

Albert Pujols is something else.

In Albert’s case, the conversation goes something like this: Medical staff says, “Albert, you’ve broken your arm. It’s not too bad, but you need 4 to 6 weeks to heal.” Albert says, “We’ll see.” Team and Medical staff: “No, Albert…really…no…look at me, Albert…really.” Albert: “Okay, doc…we’ll see.”

And then all of Cardinal Nation sits back and frets and worries about what Pujols is doing to risk re-injuring or aggravating his injury because he refuses to listen. The man is possessed. His belief is simple – No one knows his body better than himself and God. That is a dangerous belief for a professional athlete. Think about that…we’re talking about a profession that lives and dies by medical reports and trainer evaluations. Millions of dollars are made and lost based on those reports and evaluations. And Albert is out there wingin’ it with God.

Ugh. It gives Cardinal fans ulcers. But that’s Albert.

Now…flash forward 16 days. The typical MLB player with Albert’s injury conversing with his medical staff: Medical staff says, “Things are progressing nicely…a bit better than we’d hoped, actually. You’re right on track.” Player says, “You mean I might be  back sooner than expected?” Medical staff: “Oh, no, no…let’s not  jeopardize anything here. We’ve been lucky…let’s just stick to the timetable and see where we are in a couple more weeks.” Player: “But if it’s healing faster…” Medical staff: “Just…trust us. We know best.” Player: “Okay. Two more weeks.”

By contrast, Albert Pujols and his medical staff: Medical staff says, “Wow…things look good. You feel any pain?” Albert says, “No pain at all…I felt like I could play the day after the injury.” Medical staff: “Okay…well…that’s a good sign. You may be able to come back in a couple more weeks for the minimum time out…but let’s not rush…” Albert: “I can play right now. I’ve been swinging a bat for a week.” Medical staff: “You what?! But the fracture isn’t completely healed. It could still…” Albert: “I can play. Let me show you.”

Look…is it possible something else could be going on? Sure. It could be. But those who truly know Pujols and his history can attest to his “I’m coming back as soon as humanly possible…maybe sooner” mentality. He’s just different. Not always in body…often in mind…in spirit.

You will NOT keep Albert out of the lineup if he feels he can play. It just won’t happen. Think about it this way…Albert loves Tony LaRussa…and it could be argued that Albert has no greater, more committed advocate than the future Hall of Fame manager…but even Tony has endured Albert’s wrath when he keeps him off the field.

It’s not about Albert’s body. It’s not about Albert’s toughness. It’s not about healed or not healed, and it’s not about drugs or experimental medical procedures. Any or all of that could possibly be involved…but it ultimately doesn’t matter. It never has.

It’s about Albert’s will. His will to be in there…to get on the field. His will to play. His demand to play.

Most outside of St. Louis…those that don’t watch him play everyday…they just don’t get it.

Is the wrist completely healed? Absolutely not. In fact, it will be heavily taped for the next two weeks while it continues to heal. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not bad enough to keep Albert from playing…and that means he plays. It’s no more nefarious, complicated, or suspicious than that. It’s just that simple.

When Albert can play…he does play. End of story.

GO CARDS!!!

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