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Pitchers and Other Liars

Disclaimer: I love baseball and the Mets. HONEST!

Like my partner, spring training’s barely arrived and I’m already tired of it [1]. It’s been that way for me for a while — pitchers and catchers reporting is a nice hint that spring will eventually arrive, but it’s uplifting for about five minutes until you look out the window and see Antarctica and groan that it’s still getting dark too soon and remember that we’re a long way from crocuses and buds on trees and 1:10 or 7:10. I get a little more pep in my step for the first spring-training game, but honestly that’s mostly about getting to hear Gary Cohen again. That good feeling lasts about an inning, at which point I think, “oh man, none of this matters” and pick up a magazine, looking up only if the St. Lucie wind is blowing another flyout to left into a home run or if I have a chance to make fun of the too-loud guy aiming an attempted Agincourt-intensity heckle at a fifth starter whose only assignment is to work on the change-up. (Seriously, who are these guys?)

The absurdist length of spring training is about one thing and one thing only — damaging pitchers’ arms and shoulders in a calibrated way so that they can repeatedly perform the damaging action of throwing a baseball, but with as little risk as possible that they will damage their arms and/or shoulders in a sudden, catastrophic way that requires a trip to the doctor/surgeon. (And what’s the normal risk level of that happening if you follow protocols? Nobody knows, because every human body is different and the protocols are as much jock folklore and tradition as they are science.)

Hitters? Once upon a time they needed spring training because they’d spent the offseason mucking barns, driving trucks or sitting in offices as corporate ornaments. But that was generations ago. Yeah, hitters talk about needing to get their timing, but hitters are always getting and losing their timing, which is another way of saying whether or not the statistical noise is currently favorable.

These days hitters hit all year, occasionally filling the gaps in their hitting time with thinking about hitting or being told what to do by nutritionists. Genetic outliers aside, pitchers can’t physically pitch all year. So we have spring training, which is a lot of huff and blather constructed around waiting for them.

In a sensible world, pitchers would go to spring training around Valentine’s Day and damage their arms in a supposedly constructive way while no one watched. Hitters would show up around March 10, accompanied by the media. Games would start around St. Patrick’s Day. That would leave us three weeks of stories we’ve read before that have no bearing on what will happen in the regular season, interspersed with genuinely fun features on prospects we’ll probably never hear from again, and the occasional unfortunate breaking news of torn ligaments, cheese-gratered labrums, tsk-tskable speeding tickets and ill-advised debates with pizza delivery boys. And that would be it.

But it’s not, so we all have a job to do. And amid the same-old same-old of the spring-training better-than-anything-else athletic-entertainment industry, two things jumped out at me from the first couple of days.

The first item was the package of declarations that David Wright [2] will be just fine [3] and is in the … WAIT FOR IT … best shape of his life. In Wright’s case that hoary old statement might actually matter, as the 2015 Mets’ fortunes in large part depend on finding out if Wright’s recent woes are a product of a loose shoulder joint that’s now been fixed or a product of the inevitable fact that he’s a young man on planet Earth but starting to be an old one as a ballplayer. (I desperately hope it’s the former while suspecting it’s the latter.)

The other thing that caught my eye? It was Jonathon Niese saying positive things [4] about his shoulder, and shedding light on how that shoulder felt last year. There are two times ballplayers and club officials are most likely to tell the truth — the first day of spring training and two days after a player’s no long around. Niese said he probably should have missed the first month of 2014 instead of just the first week and had had sharp, knife-like pain in the shoulder — something he could admit because the shoulder feels really strong now.

Which gets me back to pitchers.

Niese’s remarks immediately reminded me of the May 2010 flap over Dan Warthen [5] saying that John Maine [6] was “a habitual liar” about his own health, which Maine resurrected three years later [7] when asked about it during his brief, doomed comeback with the Marlins. I never understood any of that. All pitchers are habitual liars about their own health, because if they weren’t nobody involved with baseball could in good conscience let them pitch. Right up above you’ll find Niese fessing up to habitual lying last spring. And here’s Bobby Ojeda [8] recounting more than 30 years of habitual lying — an article that every baseball fan should read at least once a month [9] and use as a benchmark whenever anybody says anything.

Pitching is insane, and it makes pitchers insane — most of them would grit their teeth and tell you everything was fine until the moment their ulnar ligament made that awful pop. Warthen’s sin wasn’t calling Maine a liar, but departing from the carefully scripted collective lying needed to let pitchers pitch. We should never forget that — particularly not during spring training, when the whole machine is gearing up and we’re given a look at its component parts.