Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Urban Legends and Practicalities

A memorable photo of Doc Gooden appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated during the spring of 1985. The shot done while Gooden was throwing off a Payson Field mound in St. Petersburg, Florida, was a unique shot from below. The angle was quite telling as it showed just how much torque and range of motion a pitcher of Gooden's physical skills possessed. Sadly, though, it fails to take into account practicalities of any athlete's longevity and shelf life.

Take Tiger Woods for example. I was heard a golfer friend of mine describe a young Wood's as one of those young, "limber backs." We all marveled at the excellence of the Wood's power game at the beginning with the remarkable range of motion he displayed on his now over scrutinized swing. Occasionally beset by knee problems and back problems, Woods has undestandably altered his swing over the years. He knew his body changed from when he was in his teens and early twenties to where he is now at 30.

Now consider Gooden. As a teen, he was in the major leagues, a feat perhaps as rare as perfect games. He was dominating at age 20 in 1985 as few have. We knew that Gooden had grown between 1984 and 1985. But it also signaled the fact that his body was changing as all of ours do. Effects of gravity and natural evolution of muscle-skeletal structure would indeed have its say in the way in which Gooden's body took shape in his early 20's. Photo's of Gooden the teenager and Gooden in his mid 20's certainly validate this.

Gooden was neither soft nor lazy and remained a tremendous competitor. He trained hard. Tom McGraw once described what a professional athlete has as a pride factor. If an athlete has established a level of excellence they persevere to maintain that. This explains why many do get out, even if they can perform at a competent level. Gooden certainly had this pride factor.

And as an the old sage and mentor Tom McKenna was fond of saying, "the body wasn't meant to throw a baseball."

It delicate nature and tight surroundings don't bode well for the human shoulder throwing a baseball. Few are indeed able to throw a ball 100 miles per hour. Those that do often don't do those for long. Exceptions of Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson indicate and incredible work ethic maintained over the years and well, divine intervention.

Gooden started experiencing a stretching of the capsule in his shoulder, something common in all pitchers. The shoulder's capsule is best described as a thickening of the ligaments of the shoulder. Ligaments provide any joint's stability. Subsequent effects of this stretching vary from pitcher to pitcher. This capsular stretching often leads to instability, pain , tears of the capsule and other rotator cuff difficulties.

Doc Gooden was the face of the New York Mets franchise of the late 1980's. An organization-wide panic ensued when Gooden began having shoulder trouble. Late Team physician Jim Parkes tried as he might to calm the waters, but the classy Gooden had many speaking in his ear. New technology both provided answers while creating new questions. MRI's were new at the time. Wondrous as they were for diagnostics, we didn't always know what we were looking at.

An MRI view of Gooden's shoulder lead one observer to feel it was a tumor. Enter more panic. Parkes knew that it wasn't but the panic needed to be abated. The tumor was subsequently ruled out and the diagnosis was changed to small tear in the rotator cuff. So as per instructions from the powers that be, an MRI was taken every two weeks or so and to we watched the small tear shrink to nothing.

Later on during the brief tenure of Buddy Harrelson, Gooden felt something pop in his shoulder while getting something extra on a fastball for the Dodger's Pedro Guerrero. He continued pitching, but Gooden knew it wasn't right. More panic about the capsule via the MRI's followed. But Gooden trusted Parkes and acquiesced to letting him scope his shoulder and Parkes trimmed up some soft tissue.

Looking back I suspect that Jim Parkes had little faith in the surgical technique of the time to deal with the anterior instability of a pitcher's shoulder which Gooden suffered from. This may have been revealed by the next physician who operated on Gooden's shoulder, David Alcheck. Mets Head Trainer, Steve Garland told me that Alchek had said, "Jim Parkes showed tremendous restraint when he was inside Gooden's shoulder.

None of this came as a result of Mel Stottlemyer's tinkering. Although a popular legend among knowing Met fans, this just wasn't the case. Gooden was a victim of Mother Nature. She's not always kind. And her rules for a blessed Doc Gooden dictated that there would be only one season like that, albeit one of wonder in that summer of 1985.

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