“LOOK WHO’S on TV!” I called to my wife.
New York Mets star David Wright had returned to Citi Field, interrupting his injury rehab to come see his teammates play. He is out for the year, possibly longer, following June neck surgery to repair a herniated disk, a condition perhaps related to the spinal stenosis that ruined his 2015 season.
Because the Mets third baseman was out of uniform, he was not permitted to sit with the others in the dugout during the game. Instead, he spent a lonely night in the right field bullpen, gazing forlornly when the team’s starting nine took the field, as if they had divvied up sides and he was the one not chosen.
Watching him that night, I knew precisely how he felt. Like him, I’m out for the season — and uncertain if, at 66, I too can make a successful comeback.
Most of you are probably unaware of my 55-year career playing shortstop. But if Topps ever distributes a bar-league softball card set, you’ll see I’ve taken the field from New Rochelle, N.Y., to Palos Verdes, Calif., from Key West, Fla., to Appleton, Wis.
Like Wright, I’ve had my run of injuries. Broken nose, broken jaw and my personal favorite: Opening day. I jogged to my position and stuck out my right hand to slap five with our left fielder, who was en route past me to the outfield. He missed my palm — not the first time he’d proved clumsy on a ball field — and hyperextended my pinky. E-7, if you’re scoring.
Add to those the occasional hamstring pull, shoulder ache and groin strain, and you have a scrapbook of my sports medicine history. Nothing truly major. Nothing that kept me sidelined more than six weeks.
Until June 2015. While taking between-innings grounders during our weekly Sunday pickup game, I cut loose with a throw to first. My right shoulder dropped off, the ball parachuting to rest just past the pitcher’s mound. Cradling my arm, I exited the field. I knew what I’d done.
My hope was to avoid surgery, which would sideline me for the season and perhaps end my career. First I tried physical therapy, then rest and finally a cortisone shot. None worked. Arthroscopy was inevitable if I wanted to continue playing, my orthopedist said. She advised me to go home and think long and hard about what I wanted to do, and why.
There were certainly pros to having the procedure. I love the game, for one. And I still love to compete. Major Leaguers speak of the intimate, insular camaraderie of the clubhouse. Well, that’s what we have on the picnic bench that serves as our dugout. These are my summer friends.
But there were cons, too. Crouching on every pitch for three hours — we play doubleheaders — takes a weekly toll on my lower back. Seeing my mobility, strength and skills inexorably erode is a rude reminder of where I’m headed. And even if I return to the field healthy, there’s no assurance I’ll win back my position, and playing short is what I love most about the game.
As chance would have it, Men’s Fitness magazine sent me to the Mets’ Port St. Lucie, Fla., spring training facility last February, to report on how Wright’s rehab from spinal stenosis was progressing. For two and a half hours I watched what would become his daily, solitary pre-game workout.
Afterward, I joined him in the box seats behind the Mets’ Tradition Field home dugout, where he was taking in the sun. I asked if he thought it was worth continuing to play, given his chronic condition and the grueling nature of his workload. After all, he has all the money he’ll ever need, and the amplified stress to his back will hinder him not just the rest of his playing career, but for the remainder of his life.
“When you do something you love,” he replied, “you’ll do anything you possibly can to get on that baseball field.”
I know what he means. It has taken me forever to type this because four days after Wright’s recent neck surgery, I went ahead with arthroscopy on my rotator cuff. My right arm is temporarily out of service, and I’ll pretty much be living in a bulky, sling-like contraption for four weeks, followed by months of rehab. But that’s OK, it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.
You see, like Wright, I’m still wedded to the game.