Compendium of dangers
Fans love to revel in the glory of sports. The gory isn't as nice, but the risks jocks endure are ever-present.
This article appears in the May 16, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
1. THE PRICE OF FAME
For a growing number of Venezuelan baseball players, hitting it big in the majors can mean even bigger risks back home.
Of the 234 foreign-born players on Opening Day MLB rosters, 62 hail from Venezuela, the most major leaguers ever from the South American nation. But as Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba can attest, the success of his countrymen sometimes comes at a major cost.
During a road trip with the Rockies in June 2009, Torrealba received a frantic call from his wife, Milangela. Armed men in the Venezuelan city of Guarenas had abducted the couple's then-11-year-old son, Yorvit Eduardo, and two of the boy's uncles. They demanded a ransom of $500,000.
Fortunately, the kidnappers got scared and released the hostages unharmed two days later. Unfortunately, wealthy Venezuelan major leaguers continue to be targets for kidnappings, carjackings and robberies. MLB doesn't keep an official count, but since 2002 at least six Venezuelan players or their loved ones have been abducted or victimized. In 2008, D-backs catcher Henry Blanco's brother, Carlos, was killed by his kidnappers. "The more famous you get, the more money you make, the more you become a target for gangsters," says Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez. "We want to tell the world what's going on, but we don't want to say negative things about our country."
MLB has been proactive on the issue, adding abduction scenarios to training seminars and hiring an antikidnapping official. But Venezuelan players remain uneasy. "Most of my family is now in Miami," Torrealba says. "We like our roots in Venezuela, but I preferred to bring my loved ones to a place where we can live in peace."
2. SCREAMING HEADS
Some subjects are too divisive to cover with reportage and analysis alone. Sometimes you just have to let pro athletes spout off. One such topic: Should NHLers be required to wear face shields?
Ryan Suter, Predators
"It should be a matter of choice. I don't see the NHL Players' Association ever agreeing to mandatory face shields, because many current players don't like them. I fall into that camp. When I've played internationally, I've had to wear one, and it takes awhile to adjust. First you see the puck through the visor, and then it's under the visor; that's disorienting. Plus, the shields are hard to keep clean. When the visor gets wet from sweat or snow, it's difficult to see. And when you get hit and your helmet comes forward, the visor can cut your face. But more than anything, we're all adults. Guys should be able to choose."
Teemu Selanne, Ducks
"When I came into the league, the attitude was that tough guys don't wear visors, that only soft European guys do. What a joke. It shouldn't require something bad happening for guys to realize that a visor could keep them from losing their vision. We already went through this with helmets, so there's a precedent. Just grandfather in guys who don't want to wear a face shield, but make it a requirement for guys entering the league. I wear one. It doesn't bother anybody, and it took me a week to get used to it. Hockey has become so fast and physical; making visors mandatory will save careers, no matter how tough guys may be."
3. STOP IN YOUR TRACKS
Nothing underscores the risks of sports, both in name and function, as effectively as the warning track. Some flyable chasers dish the dirt on which MLB tracks warn well and which make them very nervous.
Adam Jones, Orioles
"Our warning track at Camden Yards is the worst. It's rubber. Who the hell wants to dive on that? In Cleveland, where they have dirt in the corners, I see outfielders slide to make plays. Luke Scott did that in Camden and came back with a chunk of meat missing from his leg. Now I know when the ball's hit, I've got to get back quickly because I don't plan on diving."
Will Venable, Padres
"When you hit the warning track in San Francisco, you know you're there. It's good dirt, not gravel. And our fielding surface in San Diego is as good as it gets. In Houston they have what feels like coarse gravel. Not even gravel; it's shards of rock. That's terrible."
Jason Bay, Mets
"The one at Citi Field is good because it's wide. At Fenway, you have a step and a half and you're at the wall. But I guess if they had a bigger warning track, there would be no outfield grass in leftfield. Even if you look at the tracks in the corners, there's like six inches between the foul line and the wall. It makes you hesitant, that's for sure."
Juan Pierre, White Sox
"The best warning tracks are those that give you about five running steps, like at Yankee Stadium. Dodger Stadium is also good because it's old school; the outfield wall is a continuous arc. All the new stadiums have bends and nicks, like Citi Field. The wall comes out and goes in, and you have to worry about running into part of the wall that juts out."
"The most dangerous is Wrigley Field. Neither the track nor the field are that great, and on top of that, you're thinking about running into that brick wall. Tampa's tricky too, because it's turf all the way around. When you're looking up at a ball, you're waiting to feel the dirt. But in the Trop, the texture doesn't change."
4. DO IT YOURSELF
Does your local Little League field need a warning track? Or maybe you're just tired of the neighborhood sandlotters running into the plank fence that protects your hydrangeas. Either way, here's how to construct your own slow-down strip.
1. "Excavate seven to eight inches down in the area you want your track," says MLB's lead field consultant, Murray Cook. The league requires a minimum width of 15 feet for a warning track, or at least two full-sprint strides. There was no warning track in Ebbets Field in 1947, when Dodgers outfielder Pete Reiser ran into the wall with such force that last rites were administered on the field for the temporarily paralyzed All-Star. The Brooklynites added a track the following season, and before long every other team had one of its own.
2. Pitch the bottom of your track, or subgrade, away from the field. Most MLB stadiums go with a 1 percent to 2 percent downward slope, which aids with water drainage. In the early 1900s, many fields had dirt inclines leading up to the wall, which effectively served as a warning. But once teams began renovating parks to accommodate outfield seats, the fields were leveled out and outfielders were left to their own cautionary devices.
3. Tamp down the subgrade to make it as compact as possible. If you want, lay a geo cloth on the subgrade, or bottom level. A geo cloth is a water-permeable fabric lining that helps to keep layers separate.
4.Place a two-inch layer of stone, sand or limestone over the subgrade. Pack it down with the two-ton roller you keep in the garage, then add another two-inch layer and repeat. (Cook suggests adding water to improve the packing.) You want a total height of about four inches. In the interest of particle partitioning, consider a geo cloth here, too.
5. Back in 1935, wall-wary Yankees outfielder George Selkirk suggested that every park install a six-foot-wide cinder path at the edge of the wall. These days, Cook says the most common material is crushed red brick, though other possibilities include lava rock, clay and shell rock, among others. Whatever the material, make sure to use four to six inches of it. Then get that roller back from your neighbor, who has borrowed it for way too long, and smooth it all down.
6. Massage the surface until it's just right. "The goal is to keep the top half-inch loose while the base stays firm," says Cook. Once it's settled, let the games begin.
5. OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS
The riches athletes face can pale in comparison to those negotiated by the people working behind the scenes. Looking for a safe trade? These gigs aren't for you.
When man battles mountain, man sometimes loses. That's when other men are called in -- guys like Dave Clarke, a volunteer on the Portland Mountain Rescue squad.
The Peril: "Our aim is to minimize danger. Preparation includes avalanche studies and predicting whether it's safe to cross a slope. Conditions are often settled at night, but when the sun comes out, rock or ice will break loose and roll down at you."
The Toughest Call: "In 2006, three climbers went missing. There were 100 mph winds at the summit, so we weren't able to get there safely. We found one of them dead in a snow cave, the other two were never found. It's hard, but if we go out and get hurt, we can't help anybody else."
Veteran NFL umpire Tony Michalek can't call a penalty when he gets hit. It's just part of the game.
The Peril: "In 2009, I got drilled on a punt and my head slammed into the ground. Another time, I made the Not Top 10 after Josh Freeman used me as a shield to avoid a sack. The DT went right through me."
The Recovery: "Some players feel bad. They'll come over while you're sitting there moaning and say, 'I'm really sorry.' But some will swear and say, 'Get out of the way. You made me miss a tackle!' Before last season the NFL changed the rules regarding the position of umpires, reducing our exposure. But a lot of us played the game, so we're not afraid of getting hit."
In July, cycling photographer Casey B. Gibson will snap his 12th Tour de France from the back of a motorcycle, with no PADDed clothing, seat belt or fear.
The Peril: "I'll have one camera on each shoulder, so I hold on to the bike with my legs. If there's a rough stretch of road ahead, my longtime driver, Alex Dudley, will tap me on the leg to let me know it's coming. Otherwise, I'm focusing on the cyclists and telling Alex where I need to go."
The Nearest Miss: "We once came around a corner right onto a bridge. The medical car, which stays close to the peloton, cut us off. We were about four inches from the wall on the left and the car on the right. I put my hand on the hood as we squeezed through."
When giant waves are barreling toward the shore at 50 mph, surfers can't paddle IN to start their run. Instead, they grab hold of a rope and get pulled IN by jet ski. Pro surfer Ian Walsh has done his share of towing.
The Peril: "When a big wave appears, you start 200 or 300 yards out and drive straight in, chasing the swell, gauging its speed and where it will peak. When you feel like your guy has enough momentum, you veer off and give him a whip into the wave."
The Aftermath: "If the rider goes down badly, you have to go get him out. One time, I misread the following wave. I got thrown 10 feet and then rolled around with the broken Jet Ski. You have to be able to deal with a lot in those elements."
6. HEADY STUFF
Does more padding make athletes safer -- or more reckless?
ON PAPER, women's lacrosse is a noncontact sport. But on the field, players get banged up, and as in many other sports, concussions are becoming increasingly common. Still, calls for hard-shell protective headgear are being resisted, even by US Lacrosse, the sport's main governing body. The fear is that more protection will lead to increased physical play and a spike in severe injuries. It's the same debate that's taking place in the NHL and NFL, where violent collisions, both fair and foul, have become the norm.
Scientists call it Risk Homeostasis Theory, which holds that as protection increases, so does risk taking, canceling out the overall benefit of the safety upgrade. Consider that rugby, a helmetless sport, claims a very low rate of concussions. Skeptics argue, however, that rugby's tough-guy ethos results in the underreporting of injuries.
It is the ethos of lacrosse that is at the center of this latest argument. Women's lacrosse has traditionally been a finesse game, in which speed and positioning trump brute force. Introducing helmets, officials contend, will make players, unconsciously or otherwise, feel they're less susceptible to suffering -- or inflicting -- serious injury, and thus lead to more physical play. As we've seen in hockey and football, once that mind-set takes hold, it's difficult to dial back.
7. HIDDEN DANGERS
As if high-speed crashes or beanballs to the noggin aren't scary enough, these perils hide in plain sight.
In a last-lap crash at the 2010 Indy 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay watched fellow racer Mike Conway's 1,600-pound car spin inches over his head like a lawn mower blade. Conway was banged up but okay, and Hunter-Reay wound up with torn ligaments in his left thumb -- not from that crash, but from a low-speed bump on Pit Road earlier in the race. Turns out, when an open-wheel car's front tire makes contact with another ride, no matter the speed, the small, contoured steering wheel jerks faster than a driver can react, cracking bones and shredding ligaments.
Blood in the Water
Sharks, coral reefs and irate locals can be avoided, but you can't surf without a surfboard. And as most modern planks are leashed to the rider, avoiding the fiberglass missiles after a wipeout can be all but impossible. "Getting hit by the board is a real concern," says Warren Kramer, orthopedic surgeon for ASP surfers. "Concussions, bruises, broken noses and orbital bones, lacerations from fins -- people often come in bloody."
MLB mandates that bases measure 15 inches square and between three and five inches thick -- the perfect dimensions to cause serious ankle injuries when stepped on awkwardly. Okay, so base-induced mishaps are rare, but when they do occur, as with Jason Kendall (fractured and dislocated ankle) in 1999 and Geoff Jenkins (dislocated ankle, torn ligaments) in 2002, the results can be gruesome.
8. 140 CHARACTERS, ZERO CHARACTER
Twitter is nearly five years old, but scads of pro athletes remain unaware of the perils of broadcasting thoughts in such a public forum. Or so their Tweets would suggest.
Marvin Morgan, striker; Dagenham & Redbridge FC, League One
Jan. 3, 2011
Tweet: "Like to thank the fans who booed me off the pitch. Where's that going to get you! I hope you all die." -To the fans of Aldershot Town, after the club lost 2-1 to Hereford
Fallout: Morgan apologized, but Aldershot Town suspended its best scorer, fined him two weeks' pay and loaned him to Dagenham & Redbridge FC. His account is now locked to the public.
Stephanie Rice, Three-Time Olympic Gold Medal Swimmer; Australia
Sept. 4, 2010
Tweet: "Suck on that, f -- ts Probably the best game I've ever seen!! Well done boys." -To the rugby fans of South Africa's Springboks, after the Australian Wallabies beat them 41-39
Fallout: A public outcry prompted Rice to tweet, two days later, "I did not mean to cause offence ... I have deleted it from the site." She followed up with a tearful press conference, but her sponsor, Jaguar, still terminated her deal and reclaimed the XF it had given her.
Cappie Pondexter, Point Guard; Liberty
March 12, 2011
Tweet: "What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes." -Pondexter's theory about why the tragic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan was bad enough, but her follow-up a day later -- "u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can't expect anything less" -- was even more appalling.
Fallout: Pondexter tweeted a near-unintelligible apology but faced no punishment from the WNBA or the Liberty.
Paul Bissonnette, Left Wing; Coyotes
@PaulBizNasty (then), @BizNasty2point0 (now)
July 20, 2010
Tweet: "kovalchuck's gana have to give lap dances for 20 years instead of getting them now that he got rejected ... sory communist. back to the soviet." -Posted after the NHL negated the $102 million contract the Devils gave Ilya Kovalchuk
Fallout: Bissonnette's agent advised him to shut down his account, but his fans started a "Free Biz Nasty" campaign to get him back on Twitter. Though his handle changed, his commentary remains as colorful as ever. During the Masters, Bissonnette tweeted: "Jason Day's wife is a rocket. Hope he wins the Masters so we can get her some more camera time."
Andray Blatche, Forward; Wizards
Feb. 26, 2011
Tweet: "like I said I'm done with this fake Internet thing if u wanna see meet me saturday after game I can throw these things homie" -Blatche's suggestion to a follower with whom he exchanged a series of escalating virtual barbs
Fallout: Blatche claimed someone hacked his account and posted the comments, which satisfied the Wizards' brass. Make of it what you will, homes.
Bernard Berrian, Receiver; Vikings
Oct. 16, 2009
Tweet: "1-2-3 SAAAAKKKKIIII!!" accompanied by a TwitPic of a naked woman in a shower -The Minny wideout was enjoying sushi and sake with friends when he decided to post a snap of the feast. What got posted was not the main course he had in mind.
Fallout: Berrian blamed the Internet gods, chalking it up to an inexplicable technical glitch.
9. RED CARDING RACISM
Words can kill, which is why Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry has long been an outspoken leader in the fight against racism in European soccer, including racist chants and threats of violence against players. The danger, as Inter Milan's Samuel Eto'o said in 2008, is that "some crazy fan jumps from his seat and kills a black player." In 2005, a few months after Henry was called a "black s -- " by Spanish national coach Luis Aragones, the then-Arsenal star launched the Stand Up Speak Up campaign with the support of then-sponsor Nike. The effort helped bring about harsh sanctions against clubs that tolerate bigotry in their stadiums. Now in his second MLS season, Henry is determined to make sure fans and clubs remain vigilant.
"Whatever problems are in society you will find expressed in football. There are fans in some places who think it's fair to taunt a player about his color. For years nobody said or did anything, even though everyone knew it was happening. After the incident with the boss of the Spanish national team in 2004, I realized how deep-rooted this problem was and how important it is that we talk about it and raise awareness and get people to speak out against it. Maybe you're not going to change everything, but trying helps. If we don't, it will never end."
10. WHO YOU CALLIN' SOFT?
According to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission data, softball was responsible for 121,175 ER visits in 2009. How does a game with "soft" in its name inflict so much damage? Andy Purcell of Team Resmondo, one of the top slow-pitch softball teams in the country, takes a look at an average weekend warrior and breaks down all the breaking down.
Face: Monsters with aluminum bats are cranking comebackers at pitchers just 50 feet away. Result? "I once saw a guy hit a pitcher square in the face," recalls Purcell. "There was blood everywhere. He ended up going to the hospital, and when he finally returned he was pitching with a mask."
Shoulders: If you've ever seen a delusional fortysomething heave a ball from the warning track toward home plate, you know that softball players suffer their fair share of rotator cuff tears. But throwing isn't always the cause. Purcell hurt his shoulder diving back to first, and a teammate dislocated his leaping over a temporary fence to rob a home run.
Legs: While playing shortstop one time, Purcell broke a fibula turning a double play. It was a clean takeout slide. Then there's the unintentional contact between two of the 10 fielders permitted in slow-pitch. "Years ago we had two outfielders collide," says Purcell. "You could hear a leg snap from the infield."
Knees: There are few rainouts in rec softball, which means weak knees negotiating muddy basepaths. Then again, collisions can happen in any weather condition. "A few years ago our shortstop, Don DeDonatis Jr., ran into the first baseman as he hit the bag," says Purcell. "Then the ball got away and he had to quickly take off for second. He finished the tournament, but afterward he learned he tore a ligament."
Feet: In the pros, walls are padded. In rec leagues, players run into whatever flimsy structures happen to surround the field. "The worst foot injury I've seen occurred in 2003," says Purcell. "The leftfielder's foot got stuck under the fence and he broke his ankle. It never fully healed and he had to stop playing."
Back: Purcell knows he came back too early from 2005 surgery to relieve pressure on his sciatic nerve. "My team needed me," he explains. "Now I'll probably have lower back pain for the rest of my life. But hey, half our team is suffering from something."
Fingers: It's not just noses that get in the way of line drives. "In 1997 we were playing in the Class A world championships and one of our guys hit a line drive so hard it broke the fielder's finger inside his mitt," says Purcell.
ESPN The Magazine: May 16, 2011