it may be true that all teams suffer injuries to their live arms, and perhaps I
am being just a bit paranoid, doesn't it seem as if we Phillie faithful are just
a bit star-crossed? Billy Wagner is
but the latest in an endless stream of solid pitchers cut down by injuries, at
the most inopportune time.
The following paragraphs will chronicle recognizable hurler's names in incomplete sentences, as if to represent all the incomplete seasons that were lost by our beloved team to arm, hand, and now, knuckle injuries! Ray Culp.
Face it, fanatics, as the news filtered out of Clearwater, Florida of an impending MRI when Billy Wagner felt numbness on the knuckle of his middle finger, we all suspected the worst. Wayne Twitchell. Oh, I know, the Phils said that Wagner would be fine and was pumping those 100 MPH fastballs into the glove of catcher AJ Hinch. Yet it wasn't Hinch who was having the MRI, it was Wagner so if we felt a bit queasy, it was with some justification!
Yes, THAT Billy Wagner, he of the 3 up, 3 down, game over reputation, and the long awaited answer to our prayers of relief from the travails of relievers like Mitch Williams, Doug Jones and Jose Mesa. As a Phillie-lover since the days that Jack Baldschun nearly drove Manager Gene Mauch crazy with his late game theatrics, I have longed for the day when a 3-2 lead in the 9th meant switching off the radio, and chalking up another notch in the old win column. Larry Christenson.
Wagner promised that day, and no longer would we eye with envy the slants of relieve ace supremes like Mariano Rivera, John Smoltz, Eric Gagne and Trevor Hoffman. For the first time in over fifty years, the Phils finally had one of the elite closers in the game. Dick Ruthven. However, after all, these are the Philadelphia Phillies and we know, we just know that a rain cloud doesn't just bring rain, but torrential showers.
And so, once again we wait. And hope. And anticipate… the worst. John Denny. MRI reports indicated nothing serious, just some soft tissue damage, nothing to be concerned about. Ah, but WE know better, we have been there before. Pat Combs. We know that behind every soft tissue is a torn tendon, one that only a player wearing a Phillie jersey can hide from the MRI machines.
The years have not been good when it comes to pitcher injuries and Phillie chances of escaping them. It's as if they are a rite of spring passage. Ken Howell. Not only this, but the reality is that on a staff appearing deep and talented, Billy Wagner is just about the only non-replaceable part in the group.
Oh, I have heard the message that if Wagner goes down, we just insert Tim Worrell or Roberto Hernandez into the closer spot, and not even blink. Floyd Youmans. Don't believe it for one minute. Tim Worrell is a 2001-2002 version of Jose Mesa and while I will always appreciate his efforts in those seasons, I do not care to revisit them. Jose DeJesus.
As for the thought of Hernandez closing a game, again think of Mesa, only the 2003 version. On second thought, don't think of it, the thoughts are much too painful. Tyler Green. Look, I am more than happy to entrust Mssrs. Worrell and Hernandez with the 7th and 8th innings of a game. The odds that they will bridge the game from starter to Wagner are solid. Nonetheless, I want no more to do with those days of Rolaids antacids and chewed up fingernails.
Nope, I want nothing less than a lights out closer, guaranteed to take us where we want to go in October. That is Billy Wagner, and this is why the seemingly incongruous knuckle injury has me concerned. Simply because it seems so Phillie-like and predictable. Tommy Greene.
Another lefty of some repute named Sandy Koufax once threw 100 MPH fastballs until he began to feel a tingle in his finger, similar to the discomfort felt by Wagner. It happened in 1962, you could look it up. Right in the middle of a pennant race that his Dodgers seemed destined win. Brad Brink. Koufax missed three months with an ailment called Raynaud's phenomenon, an ailment that is well chronicled in Daily News writer, Bill Conlin's latest column.
Even after his late season return, Koufax was but a shell of his former self, and was not fully recovered until 1963. Curt Schilling. So, it is not too early to prepare for the worst, as we have so many times before. Matt Beech. Ah, yes, Phillie fans, we know the story before it is even written and that is why we hold our collective breaths.
Mike Grace. No team, not even the seemingly cursed Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs has had more ill begotten luck when it comes to pitcher's injuries than our very own Phillies. Paul Byrd. To the rest of the baseball populace, it is just a tiny knuckle injury, certain to go away with rest and medication. But, to us, it is much more; it's our very own Groundhog Day story. Mike Jackson.
So, in a year when all the stars seem aligned, when all the baseball publications see Philadelphia as one of the hardball capitals of the universe, we sit and wonder what will transpire to knock these stars out of alignment. Dave Coggin. And the Wagner story crosses the sports wire and we nod knowingly.
To be a Phillie fan is to hope for the best, but to expect the worst. On a team with balance, talent and depth, there are few irreplaceable players. Certainly, Jim Thome is one, possibly Mike Lieberthal another. Dennis Cook. Yet, a case can be made that Wagner is the most indispensable Phillie, not only for what he offers, but how he affects the other players.
With Wagner, the starting staff knows that a well-pitched game almost always guarantees a victory. With Wagner, the bullpen of Worrell, Hernandez and Rheal Cormier fit nicely into a set-up rotation that benefits everyone's talents. With Wagner, Manager Larry Bowa can play for the late inning run, knowing that a 1 run lead entering the 9th is a 1 run victory at games end. Bud Smith.
Sans Wagner, the entire staff is changed. Worrell becomes the probable closer, and although he demonstrated a propensity for closing in San Francisco, no one will ever mistake him for Robbie Nen. Not only that, but then the problem becomes replacing Worrell as a set up man, and the talent drop off becomes apparent on down the line. Turk Wendell.
No, faithful, this is not just a minor tissue issue; this is not just an insignificant knuckle injury. Robert Person. And this is not just the New York Yankees, who have a seemingly endless supply of good baseball karma when it comes to baseball injuries. This is the Philadelphia Phillies, our Philadelphia Phillies, and we have all been down this road before.
General Manager Ed Wade maintains that it's minor, Manger Larry Bowa insists that it's minor, even Wagner sees no cause for concern. But we all know better, our senses tell us so. Perhaps he will resurface next week, throwing as well as ever, and we can all exhale. Perhaps. Bobby Munoz. But until then, when the popping of ball to glove has the sound and feel of a 100 MPH fastball, I say that its white knuckle time… again. Billy Wagner?
Columnist's Note: I welcome suggestions, questions and comments. Please send then all
to email@example.com and I will respond. CD from the Left Coast