No pain, no game for these hard-nosed players
Originally Published: August 15, 2007By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com
Jason Hirsh didn't mean to make a statement. It just worked out that way.After taking a J.J. Hardy line drive off the leg last week, Hirsh stayed in the game to pitch five more innings in Colorado's 11-4 victory over Milwaukee. Only later did Hirsh discover he had fractured his right fibula on the play. Baseball players aren't typically regarded as tough in the manner of NFL wide receivers going over the middle or NHL wingers digging into the corner for loose pucks. But the season is so long, so physically and mentally draining, that few regulars report for work each day feeling spry or healthy in the conventional sense. They're all soldiers in a war of attrition. Toughness is in the eye of the beholder. But we're pretty sure it's embodied by Minnesota backup catcher Mike Redmond. During a game in July, Chicago's Jim Thome took a long follow-through and caught Redmond in the head with the barrel of his bat. After several moments on the ground, Redmond staggered to his feet, blood pouring from his head, and apologized to teammate Joe Mauer on his way back to the dugout. It was the second game of a doubleheader, and Redmond felt bad about taxing Mauer's workload. "It wasn't like I was hurt that bad," Redmond told Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Just bleeding a lot." In honor of the Jason Hirshes and Mike Redmonds of the world, we surveyed 30 players, managers, scouts, executives and media members in a quest to find players with high pain thresholds and a low tolerance for days off. These guys are quick to sacrifice their bodies for the team, and no threat to run and hide during a bench-clearing brawl. Remember "The Breakfast Club"? We'll call this week's installment of Starting 9 the Eat-Nails-for-Breakfast Club.
Russell Martin, Dodgers catcherAs one National League catcher recently observed, "Mike Lieberthal has the best job in baseball." Considering that Lieberthal makes $1.25 million and has started 11 games behind the plate as Martin's backup, it sure seems like a good gig. Martin leads all major league catchers in games played and ranks second to Cleveland's Victor Martinez in plate appearances. He blocks balls, shakes off foul tips, breaks up double plays with abandon and doesn't know the meaning of the words, "I can't go, Skip." We became acquainted with Martin's toughness last September, watching him walk into the Dodgers' clubhouse with a stiffer gait than the Tin Woodsman in the "Wizard of Oz." At this point in the season, Martin needs a daily massage just to climb the dugout stairs and make it onto the field for pregame stretching. "I'm becoming a big fan of Russell Martin," said Arizona's Tony Clark, a 13-year veteran. Honorable mention: Brad Ausmus, Gregg Zaun, Jason Kendall and Michael Barrett were among the other catchers who received mentions, but no one embodies hard-core toughness more than Boston's Jason Varitek. "If I had to pick the guys in the game I respect most, he'd rank in the top three," said Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand.
Todd Helton, Rockies first basemanHelton isn't the same dominant offensive player who received a $141 million contract from Colorado in 2001 and looked like a Hall of Fame lock at age 30. But he never makes excuses, and he leaves nothing in the tank. Helton has endured back pain and calf problems, and missed two weeks last season with acute ileitis, a painful inflammation of the small intestine. Despite losing 10 pounds, Helton came off the disabled list as scheduled and started 64 straight games before Colorado manager Clint Hurdle was able to chain him to the bench. It's the same brand of fortitude Helton displayed as a University of Tennessee quarterback while facing the onslaught of SEC linebackers. If he's ambulatory, he's out there. Honorable mention: Albert Pujols, Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner make the grade. Hafner, who stands 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and loves professional wrestling, is a man you want standing beside you when the beanballs fly.
Craig Biggio, Astros second basemanIt's a certainty Biggio will be wearing an Astros cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. The portrayal would be even more genuine if it showed him beneath a gunk-encrusted helmet with sweat and eye black all over his face. Biggio has played 1,961 games at second base, 427 at catcher and almost 400 in the outfield. He's that rare player who knows how it feels to get spiked at the bag, block a slider in the dirt and go shoulder-first into the wall in pursuit of a fly ball. That's a masochist's hat trick. Biggio has also been hit by a pitch 285 times, second-most in history behind Hughie Jennings, and has 414 stolen bases worth of jammed fingers. Considering the abuse he's taken, it's amazing that he's been on the disabled list only once, with torn knee ligaments in 2000. Honorable mention: Lots of people remember Jeff Kent breaking his wrist while popping wheelies on his motorcycle in San Francisco. Giants fans recall when Kent, weak with the flu, took intravenous feedings before playing both ends of a day-night doubleheader against Colorado in 2000. He's one ornery gamer.
Miguel Tejada, Orioles shortstopTejada isn't such a great investment these days, with his $12 million annual salary, .430 slugging percentage and diminished range in the field. The fewer home runs he hits, the tougher it is for speculation about those vitamin B-12 shots to fade away. But Tejada's stamina is indisputable. He appeared in 1,152 straight games, the fifth-longest streak in history, before breaking his wrist in June. That's an awful lot of punishment with no breathers. "A few years ago, we were playing Baltimore, and Miggy went back on a ball and did something to his ankle," Rowand said. "He went down like somebody shot him, and they had to carry him off the field. He was right back out there playing the next day." Honorable mention: Jimmy Rollins, Omar Vizquel and David Eckstein pass the pound-for-pound toughness test, and Derek Jeter's foray into the stands on a Trot Nixon foul pop in July 2004 remains one of his signature moments. "Derek Jeter diving in the stands headfirst and coming out looking like George Chuvalo is my all-time great effort," said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "That was just instinctive toughness."
Ty Wigginton, Astros third basemanIf Eric Byrnes is known as the Crash Test Dummy, then Wigginton should forever be regarded as the Human Four-Car Pileup. "This guy will run into, over or through anybody or anything," said Washington Nationals reliever Ray King. Just ask catcher Koyie Hill, who suffered a broken ankle while being steamrolled by Wigginton, or Yadier Molina, whose cage was similarly rattled. Wigginton isn't the most skilled or graceful athlete. But he's a grunting, snorting, collision-inducing machine. Honorable mention: Boston's Mike Lowell came back from testicular cancer. Joe Crede played through some excruciating back pain in Chicago. David Wright did his own Jeter-like leap into the stands. And while Alex Rodriguez is rarely hailed for his toughness, he comes to play. Since 2001, A-Rod has missed 18 of 1,091 games with Texas and New York.
Aaron Rowand, Phillies center fielderRowand clinched his spot on this team in 2006 when he caught a Xavier Nady fly ball, smacked into the Citizens Bank Park fence, then left the field with his face in a blood-soaked towel. Rowand later joked that his mother, a nurse, was concerned he might be injured until she realized he had hit the wall with his head. It wasn't the first time Rowand had put his noggin to the test. In five seasons with the White Sox, he crashed into the wall so routinely that owner Jerry Reinsdorf installed $50,000 of extra padding to ensure he wouldn't become the next Pete Reiser. Chicago general manager Kenny Williams, a former major league outfielder, describes Rowand as tough in every conceivable way. "And I don't toss out that compliment lightly," said Williams, who once played on a fractured ankle for two months before the advent of MRIs. Honorable mention: Ryan Freel, Trot Nixon and Gary Sheffield win points for competitiveness and high pain thresholds. Mike Cameron recovered from one of the scariest collisions in memory to keep playing. And Torii Hunter plays with such abandon, he once burned his goatee while sliding on the Metrodome turf after making a diving catch.
Eric Byrnes, Diamondbacks left fielder"There's a difference between being aggressive and suicidal," Byrnes once said in response to a question about his penchant for running into walls. When he figures it out, maybe he'll let us know. Byrnes has made a cottage industry of his hyperaggressiveness, with frequent TV and radio appearances, to the point that some people wonder whether it's a shtick. "I know he plays with reckless abandon, but he also dives for balls when he shouldn't dive for them," said a scout. "I think it's a little over the top." On the other hand, lots of teammates and opponents swear that Byrnes' intensity is legit. During Byrnes' winter-ball days, fans in the Dominican Republic embraced him and called him "Captain America." His zest for the game transcends national boundaries. Honorable mention: Hideki Matsui played in 1,768 straight games for the Yomiuri Giants and Yankees. After suffering a broken wrist against Boston in May 2006, Matsui expressed remorse for letting down his teammates and issued a statement of apology.
Vladimir Guerrero, Angels right fielderIf Guerrero walks as if he's in constant pain, there's good reason: He was born with his right leg longer than his left. He also played seven seasons on a glorified parking lot in Montreal, until his knees reached the Andre Dawson point of no return. Guerrero's teammates love him because there's not a trace of prima donna in him. When opposing pitchers drill him, he invariably gets up, dusts himself off and jogs down to first base. Then, the next time at bat, he exacts revenge like a man. Case in point: In August 2006, Texas starter Vicente Padilla hit Guerrero in the forearm with a fastball and threw a second pitch near his head. Guerrero responded with a three-run homer to show everybody who was boss and politely declined comment after the game. Honorable mention: Brian Giles routinely plays through injuries and once lobbied his way into the San Diego lineup against Randy Johnson because he didn't want to be accused of ducking the Big Unit.