Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Incredible? Yes. So then why am I so worried?

This should be good news. I should be thrilled. I should be rushing to tell a certain Facebook friend/Cubs fan that "The Machine" -- Albert Pujols if you're not familiar with his nickname -- came back from injury early.....AGAIN! This isn't the first time Albert's pulled off this trick. In 2006, he came back from an oblique injury after missing just a couple of weeks. In 2009, people were sure it was a matter of time before he blew out his elbow. He played the entire season, and missed a minimal number of games. This one is perhaps the most amazing.... Pujols seems to be finally working his way out of a season long slump (which in his terms is a decent season for a lot of really good players out there) but collides with a runner while reaching for a throw on Father's Day. Pujols immediately goes down and the injury looks serious. Turns out to be a fracture, and he's expected to miss AT LEAST 4-6 weeks. (Quick aside -- I'm ticked because I have tickets to the 7/29 game vs. the Cubs and was facing the prospect of my first Cardinals game since '98 that didn't involved Albert).


Image courtesy of STL Today/Cardinals (http://www.stltoday.com/sports/baseball/professional/)

Then late last week, news came out that Albert was making incredible progress in his recovery and that it was looking like he'd be back early. The worry doesn't start just yet....the guy's known as a quick healer, and I'd begun to expect (hope?) that he'd be returning sometime around the game I have tickets for. But this is a fracture....even if you're a quick healer, it just takes what it takes for a bone to heal, right? So I was more than a little surprised to see the MLB TV "Ballpark Cam" trained on Pujols and his trainer as I was waiting for the Yankees/Indians game to start yesterday. Then I hear the announcer say that Pujols may be "....back as soon as tomorrow." Tomorrow was Tuesday, July 5, 2011 (today as I'm writing).

And that's when it started....The worry. Started out wondering if the Cardinals doctors are just that incompetent. These were the guys, after all, that had played havoc with my fantasy team the week I traded for Matt Holliday, and these same doctors let Holliday play through a quad injury that ultimately landed him on the DL. Worse yet, since he'd tried to give it a go, they couldn't retro the date. (Incidentally, I traded away Jay Bruce who went on a hell of a tear just as he joined the other team's roster. I know -- no one cares about your fantasy team but you, but I can't help talking about it a little). So maybe they'd misdiagnosed Albert's injury.

Then the conspiracy theories started. Was this some plot to keep Pujols out of the line up and drive his value down? Who knows? Or did Pujols play up the injury to get a little break and also add to his legend (and eventual payday)? Both seem a little far fetched, sure, but crazier things have happened in baseball history, so maybe this was it. Or maybe he's pushing his way back too early trying to salvage his numbers ahead of free agency. Maybe he's coming back before he's ready and this is setting up a season ending injury (which would likely end what chance the Cards have at making an October run).

But ultimately, my real worry -- my 2nd biggest baseball-related fear, to be more exact -- settled into my head and has been sitting their weighing on my thoughts since. What if this recovery -- and I guess by extension the previous ones that I mentioned -- was accomplished by less-than-natural means? After Manny Ramirez, I can't imagine that any big name player is stupid enough to test his luck with MLB's drug testing policy and use steroids. But HGH? I don't know. They can't test for it, so any current MLBer could be taking the stuff and we wouldn't know. Pujols is a big guy, too...There are more than a few Cards haters out there that would suggest that the guy can't be doing this without some kind of booster. A quick google search brings up all kinds of possibly legit information suggesting that HGH could speed bone healing.

I don't want to believe this is true. I hate that the thought even crossed my mind, and I suppose I'm being somewhat irresponsible putting pen to paper as I've done here. The only thing the could shake my passion as a fan more than Albert Pujols being found out as a drug cheat would be if we learned that Derek Jeter was one. I'd be a little less surprised if this did prove true for Albert, but my disappointment would be indescribable. With Jeter, I'd be upset because his general demeanor -- as I read one writer suggest -- is that he thinks he's just better than the type of guy who'd take PEDs. Where Pujols is concerned, it's more the fact that he's said more than a few times "Don't be afraid to believe in me." He says it would be an insult to his faith to cheat his fans. He says that his wife would kill him, and he's more afraid of her than any fan based wrath he would have to face. He says all the right things, and I want to believe that he's the real deal. I want to believe that I'm seeing one of the greatest of all time giving his all game in / game out.

The sad fact is, even after all this time, no matter how sick I am of talking about PEDs, they are still a part of the game. I still remember turning a blind eye to them as Sosa and McGwire were crushing Maris' home run record. I'm ashamed that I've left ballparks satisfied that I saw one or both of those guys clubbed one. I said the same after seeing Bonds hit one in Coors when he took over as the game's premier slugger. I've seen the legacy of some of my favorite teams of all time tainted by the likes of Roger Clemens. I sympathized with Andy Pettitte as he admitted his own HGH use. I've felt the mix of sympathy and "yeah, so now you guys have your cheats, too"-itis as the key duo to the '04 and '07 Red Sox teams were outed as PED users. There have been a steady string of no names that have been busted. I should be numb to it by now. But this is different. This is Albert. This is one of my favorite players -- my favorite Cardinal since Ozzie (except maybe for Stubby Clapp). It's hopefully just one of those stupid little things that I decide I need to worry about, and I'll tell stories one day of how I saw the great Albert Pujols come back from a fracture in 15 days. But in 2011, it is hard to be sure about anything, no matter how badly you want to be wrong.

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