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Sports Then and Now

Costly Baseball Thumb Injuries, Then And Now

Posted on November 22, 2017 by Joe Fleming
The Los Angeles Angels could not overcome the thumb injury suffered by star Mike Trout during the 2017 season.

The Los Angeles Angels could not overcome the thumb injury suffered by star Mike Trout during the 2017 season.

Considering that the wounds are relatively minor, a blistered or sprained thumb has caused considerable consternation in baseball over the years. In the 2017 season, a sprained thumb might have cost two teams each a playoff berth, and of course, there’s also that famous thumb injury in 1986 which arguably extended the Curse of the Bambino another twenty years.

Medically, a sprained thumb affects the tissue in either the interphalangeal joint (thumb knuckle) or metacarpophalangeal joint (thumb base). In addition to physical activity, arthritis often causes either a hyperextension (when the thumb moves backward) or hyperflexion (repetitive motion). A few simple exercises, and perhaps a thumb brace and a little ice, usually cure the problem. But alas, these measures were insufficient to change the course of history for these three teams:

2017 Los Angeles Angels

The World Series Champion Houston Astros eventually ran away with the American League West title in 2017, but in May, preseason favorite Los Angeles appeared to be in the driver’s seat. Then, in a May 28 loss that brought the team’s record under .500 for one of the first times that season, MVP candidate Mike Trout sprained his thumb.

To almost everyone’s surprise, the Angels played .500 ball for the duration of Trout’s absence, but their inability to make a push while Houston was still finding itself took away any hope the club had for a division title. In the end, Los Angeles finished at 80-82, a scant five games out of the second wildcard spot.

Time will tell what impact the playoff miss has, but with Trout approaching 30 and Albert Pujols arguably on the downside of his career, the championship window for this particular squad appears to be closing fast.

2017 St. Louis Cardinals

Ironically, a similar fate befell Pujols’ former team, albeit at a much different point in the season.

In early and mid-September, 29-year-old rookie Jose Martinez came out of nowhere to hit four homers and eighteen RBIs in the cleanup spot, leading the surging Cardinals into wildcard contention. But Martinez sprained his thumb on September 23, missed the next two games, and the Redbirds could not recover the lost momentum. The club faded badly down the stretch, finishing three games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the second wildcard.

The thumb injury may have ended the fairy tale for Martinez as well. While he has improved his defense at first base, some still consider him a liability.

1986 Boston Red Sox

The circumstances surrounding perhaps the most infamous thumb injury in the history of baseball — Roger Clemens’ blister in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series — remain hotly disputed to this day.

According to much-maligned manager John McNamara, Clemens took himself out of the game. He recalls that the Rocket came off the mound in the bottom of the seventh with his club up a run and told McNamara “That’s all I can pitch,” due to a small tear (much like a paper cut, per McNamara) on his middle finger. In response, McNamara uttered an expletive which should not be repeated on a family-friendly website and went to the bullpen, which then surrendered the lead and the game.

For his part, Clemens has essentially claimed that he went as long as he could with the blister, and even though he feared that the injury would affect his slider in the late innings, he asked his skipper to let him stay in the game.

McNamara also recently addressed a couple of other rumors from that series. He said he did not substitute first baseman Bill Buckner, whose fielding mistake led to the difference-making unearned run because backup Dave Stapleton’s nickname was Shaky. Also according to McNamara, troubled pitcher Dennis Boyd was too drunk to take the mound in Game Seven.

Thumb injuries have played a prominent role in baseball’s past, and they will continue to do so in the future.

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