High fives, sneezes, and imaginary spiders: An ode to dumb baseball injuries
Last week, Oakland Athletics relief pitcher Shawn Kelley made a valiant bid for the Dumbest Baseball Injury of the Year with an incident now known as "the dishwashing mishap." During the event, which involved Kelley's hand getting acquainted with a knife, the pitcher "nearly cut the tip off his thumb," ESPN reports.
Subsequently, the Great Dishwashing Mishap of 2018 was filed into the annals of baseball players doing really stupid things to injure themselves — a niche obsession among many fans, including myself.
There is a crucial caveat to taking delight in other people's momentary pain: This is not a celebration of serious injuries, maimings, getting hoof-and-mouth disease, et cetera. What makes the Dumb Baseball Injury so great is the combination of randomness, self-infliction, and the victims' ability to eventually laugh at themselves. With no lasting consequences to make the injuries actual bummers, the stories of baseball players' most cringe-worthy follies have worked their way into the very fabric of the sport's history as humorous, but unforgettable, asides.
Hurting yourself stupidly is an athletic pursuit not limited to baseball, but there is something uniquely idiotic about the Dumb Baseball Injury. Consider that at least two players have hurt themselves sneezing (Sammy Sosa, Mat Latos), at least five have been taken out by their own suitcases (Dennis Martinez, Rick Aguilera, Jonathan Lucroy, Aaron Sanchez, Salvador Perez), several sustained wounds from video gaming (Joel Zumaya, David Price?), and none should be allowed anywhere near a knife (Matt Cain just had to cut his sandwich into "fancy triangles," didn't he?).
Why baseball players injure themselves in such creative ways is a cosmic mystery, although my theory is that it has something to do with the sport's long season. In football, by contrast, the regular season lasts just 17 weeks, during which it's relatively easy to keep focused on your job of playing football well. Because baseball covers more than half the year, players have to be dumb on the clock.
The resulting baseball injuries are delightful for a number of reasons. The simplest is their appeal to our lowest form of humor; there is a cartoonish slapstick comedy in imagining someone, say, chipping their tooth on a microwaved doughnut (San Francisco Giants' left fielder Kevin Mitchell, 1990). The other is the relatability of the injuries: Baseball players might get paid a million bucks, but they're still dumb like us! There is something reassuring about the fact that World Series champion and San Diego Padres pitcher Adam Eaton has also accidentally stabbed himself in the stomach while opening a DVD case.
At their deepest level, baseball injuries play into our masochistic obsession with sports irony. I really felt for Cleveland fans when MLB's resident troll, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, wounded himself fixing his drone. During the ALCS. When he was the scheduled game two starter. When the team was already down two pitchers.
Plus, you would not expect some of the most elite athletes in the world to be so breakable. Texas Rangers left fielder Jeff Baker sprained his thumb after a botched high five, which makes me feel slightly better about breaking my toe kicking a dock cleat.
Some of the very best baseball injuries cross over into the territory of urban legend. A story about Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz trying to iron his shirt while it was on, à la Mitt Romney, has been disputed by the pitcher, who claims he actually "set the steamer down, and when I set it down, water popped out and caught me on the chest" (suuuuure). Clarence Blethen, a Red Sox rookie in the 1920s, was rumored to have tucked his false teeth in his back pocket during an at-bat, only to have them "bite" him when he slid to second base later in the game. As the story goes, he was removed for his rump's excessive bleeding.
There are generally three categories of baseball injuries you can avoid with some simple steps:
1. Don't ever try to do anything cool. It won't be cool, and you will get hurt.
2. Don't ever try to fix anything yourself. You won't be able to fix it, and you will get hurt.
3. Probably best to never sleep, also.
The 2000 National League MVP, Giants second baseman Jeff Kent, ought to have paid attention to the first piece of advice; he apparently attempted to do wheelies on a motorcycle, injured himself, and then allegedly lied and said he broke his wrist while washing his car. Another wounded cool guy was New York Yankees pitcher Mike Harkey, who ended his season by trying to do a cartwheel. Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who managed to kill a rattlesnake and revive the baby rabbits it had swallowed whole without injury, went out for nearly a season after a dirt bike injury, thereby ruining my entire fantasy strategy for 2017. Los Angeles Angels first baseman Kendrys Morales also falls in the first category; he broke his ankle jumping triumphantly on home plate after a walk-off grand slam:
Bad things also happen when baseball players try to fix things, whether it's Bauer with a drone, or Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Feller attempting to make his hot tub hotter by adding almost-boiling water to it, and accidentally burning himself from the waist down. Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan rescued two coyote pups he discovered on his ranch, only to have one bite him (he missed a start because he was getting rabies tests). Chicago White Sox infielder Dick Allen put his hand through a car's tail light trying to push it out of his driveway.
Really, no task is too small to be dangerous: When reaching to pick up a flip-flop his son had kicked off, Seattle Mariners first baseman Russell Branyan fell out of a chair and bruised his tailbone. Branyan had previously injured himself closing the curtains of his hotel room.
Even sleep proves to be risky. The All-Time Dumbest Baseball Injury statuette (which is not a real thing, but should be) belongs to Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Glenallen Hill. In 1990, Hill "injured himself ... trying to escape imaginary spiders in a nightmare." "Escape" involved breaking a glass table and bashing himself up the stairs.
The year prior, another Blue Jay, David Wells, injured himself by putting his hand through glass while sleepwalking. A's left fielder Rickey Henderson gave himself frostbite in August after falling asleep with an ice pack on his foot, and Giants' third baseman Chris Brown missed a Dominican Winter League game because he "slept on his eye wrong."
And somehow we have made it this far without a mention of Cardinals' left fielder Vince Coleman getting caught in an on-field tarp before the 1985 NLCS:
Baseball has plenty of real injuries, ones that are serious and tragic, season-ending or career-ending. Perhaps the greatest joy of the Dumb Baseball Injury is that it's always temporary — a bad mistake, but one you can eventually move on from, possibly even own. Maybe it even becomes something of a trademark: "Anytime somebody does something stupid, I have to be worried about whether or not my name's going to come up," baseball's worst ironer, John Smoltz, once said.
Not everyone has a fan's special privilege of enjoying baseball scuff-ups, either. As former Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillén once observed, exasperated, of a player who cut his hand while inflicting his groundout frustrations on an electric fan: "Very stupid injury."
Yes, but what a great story.