Rolen, Floyd want to help while they hurt

NEW YORK -- As he sat in the trainer's room of Dodger Stadium on Saturday night, Cliff Floyd had an ice pack on his throbbing left ankle and a thought in his mind: I need to e-mail my agent and tell him I'm OK.

"Don't worry about me," the Mets' left fielder wrote to Seth Levinson, his agent for the past 14-plus years. "I'll tough it out. I'll be fine. I'll play."

For many baseball players, the question of what to say, if anything, when they're injured can be a quandary, especially in the playoffs. For Floyd, it was unavoidable; he strained his left Achilles tendon right there, on national television, as he willed himself to home plate and helped the Mets to a first-round series sweep of the Dodgers.

For Scott Rolen, the St. Louis Cardinals' third baseman who happens to have the same agent as Floyd, disclosing his shoulder injury to manager Tony La Russa on Saturday night was a tough choice, but one he said he made in hopes of helping his club. As a result, both teams enter Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night with serious questions about the two players' health.

If the Mets are without Floyd, they'll lose a 33-year-old veteran and a key left-handed bat against a Cardinals starting pitching staff of all right-handers. For St. Louis, a diminished Rolen, who's suffering from serious shoulder fatigue, means Albert Pujols -- arguably the most dangerous player in the postseason -- will be pitched to more carefully.

Rolen entered the season six months after doctors placed five screws into his left shoulder to keep it together. He wasn't even supposed to play every day this season, but with injuries to Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein and Pujols, among others, Rolen kept playing and hit .296 with 22 homers and 95 RBI -- second to only Pujols on the team.

Unlike Floyd, Rolen's pain is out of sight, with no visible evidence as a guide, or an excuse. So Rolen said nothing, as many players do, until it became so unbearable on Saturday that he finally sought the team doctor. When told it was fatigue, and it would only get better with rest, Rolen -- a team leader who's respected enormously in his clubhouse -- went into La Russa's office Saturday night and told him about the injury.

According to Rolen, he suggested that La Russa move him down in the order.

"I wasn't going in there to talk myself out of the lineup," Rolen said Tuesday during the NLCS workout. "I wanted to do what was best for the team. But it was not a call I wanted to make. You're in the playoffs and you don't want your team's hopes to sputter because you're stubborn and don't want to admit something's wrong."

Rolen had been 1-for-11 in the first round, and after hearing the news, La Russa sat him on Sunday and seemed irked that Rolen had not come to him earlier about the injury.

"I was never, and am not now, upset with him," La Russa said Tuesday, "because I really admire the fact that he wanted to go out there."

After he watched his team clinch from the bench, Rolen received a cortisone injection in the shoulder, but did not have an MRI. He'll likely start Game 1 of the NLCS on Wednesday night, even if he's not 100 percent. While Pujols and Chris Carpenter pose the biggest threat to the Mets, Rolen's presence in the lineup and in the field -- where he's won six Gold Gloves -- is, at the very least, a psychological advantage for St. Louis.

"He's a big part of this lineup," reserve outfielder John Rodriguez said. "I can't explain how different it is without him. If he's out, then we wouldn't have that comfort level. It's just a comfort knowing he's there."

When Rolen walked onto the field at Shea Stadium on Tuesday, he looked as if he were a healthy, 31-year-old professional athlete. He took batting practice, and there were no outward signs of the trauma in his shoulder. Floyd, on the other hand, limped into the Mets' clubhouse shortly before 11 a.m. with a plastic boot on his left leg. He later took swings in the cage and did some light running and outfield drills, trying to prove to the coaches and to himself that he can play. The Mets are scheduled to finalize their roster Wednesday morning.

"I'm not going to judge [Rolen] if he wants to help the team. Without a doubt I'll respect him if he's playing hurt and giving everything, even if he's not totally healthy."
-- Cardinals SS David Eckstein

After battling a myriad of injuries this season, Floyd received a cortisone injection in his weak left leg before the Division Series. Admitting it made him feel like Superman, Floyd homered and scored three runs in the first round, before being felled by his injured Achilles. But on Tuesday he stood in front of his locker for nearly an hour entertaining the wave of reporters, as the cheese on his egg and sausage croissant sandwich glazed from runny and warm to hard and cold.

"I'm not sitting here and saying I'm better than you because I can handle the pain," said Floyd, who added that he didn't have an MRI. "It's what you can do to help the team, and what you can't do."

But there is a fine line between keeping an injury to yourself, and hurting your team's chances when you're incapable of performing. Is it a detriment to the team when a player's shoulder doesn't have full range of motion to hit the ball, or when a player running to first on a gimpy leg can't beat the throw?

"Oh, I don't know; ever heard of a guy named Kirk Gibson?" said Eckstein, the Cardinals' shortstop and leadoff hitter. "We're in the playoffs and guys have earned the right to suit up and play. I'm not going to judge [Rolen] if he wants to help the team. Without a doubt I'll respect him if he's playing hurt and giving everything, even if he's not totally healthy."

But some players caution against an ineffective player taking up a roster spot, when tactical decisions are made by the manager to best use 25 guys.

"Of course I don't want somebody in the lineup that's going to be an automatic out," Mets third baseman David Wright said, speaking generally.

Floyd and Rolen's agent, Levinson, said the warrior-like mentality of both players prevents them from saying "I can't."

"I have never, ever known Scott to use injury as an excuse or an alibi," Levinson said. "And Cliff has battled through much more than physical pain this year. Warriors are wired different. They just don't have that 'I can't' gene."

Until a ground ball forces Rolen to dive to his left, or Floyd to run out an infield hit, their teams are hoping that "I can" rules over "I can't."

Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.