Sidelined!

Extensive weightlifting, big contracts, and steroids are blamed for injury woes in Major League Baseball.

As Sammy Sosa proved earlier this year, injuries are nothing to sneeze at. In May, the Cubs slugger was sidelined for a month after hurting his back when sneezing.

Longtime baseball observers cite Mr. Sosa as one of a growing number of baseball players spending more and more time on the dreaded disabled list. A confidential Major League Baseball report obtained by ESPN The Magazine this summer found that players now spend an average of 68.4 days on the DL, up from 55.9 days in 1989. Through July 28 this season, 341 players had spent 16,516 days on the DL, according to MLB statistics.

But determining whether more players are hurt this season than in previous ones is difficult, as statistical measures provided by MLB are, in some cases, incomplete. Matthew Gould, an MLB spokesman, declined comment on the incidence of injuries. He also declined interview requests with MLB's labor executives and its medical adviser.

League statistics, however, show the number of players and days spent on the disabled list have decreased during the past four seasons. In 2000, according to MLB figures, 476 players spent 26,105 days on the injured list, compared with 414 players and 22,439 days in 2003.

"If you ask me about [the number of injuries now compared with] five years ago, I think it's about the same," says Todd Hutcheson, head athletic trainer for the San Diego Padres. "But if it's compared with 15 or 20 years ago, then, yeah, I do think there is a higher incidence of injury."

Among the reasons commonly cited for baseball's injury problem: extensive weightlifting, caution caused by high-dollar player contracts (the current average salary is $2.49 million), nutritional training supplements, and, of course, steroids.

Other reasons given are simpler.

"Most baseball injuries are wear and tear," says Jamie Reed, head athletic trainer with the Texas Rangers. "We constantly look back at an injury and say, 'Could that have been prevented?' But one of the things that happens as players extend their careers, which more and more are doing, is that wear and tear kicks in."

The Rangers had led the American League West through much of this season, but fell behind the Oakland A's last month while enduring a series of injuries. On Aug. 1, Texas had a dozen players on the disabled list.

Baseball executives have expressed concern over injury rates. In 2002, Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, told the Senate Commerce Committee that players spent 20 percent more time on the disabled list in 2001 than they did in 1998.

In addition, the cost of payments to disabled players grew from $129 million in 1998 to $317 million three years later.

The confidential reports obtained by ESPN found teams paid more than $1 billion to injured players between 1997 and 2001 - twice what was paid from 1992 to 1996.

In addition to Sosa, other big-name players missing portions of the current season include Nomar Garciaparra (who was still with the Boston Red Sox when an Achilles' tendon injury cost him 57 games), 2003 World Series MVP Josh Beckett (three stints on the disabled list, including two for blisters and torn skin on the middle finger of his pitching hand), and two-time American League MVP Frank Thomas (two months with a broken foot).

Another player laid low by the injury: Cincinnati outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who missed 269 games in his first four seasons with the Reds. This year, Mr. Griffey tore his hamstring just before the All-Star break, and hasn't played since.

"There are so many things on the table right now, it's hard to just pick one," says Harold Reynolds, an ESPN baseball analyst who played 12 seasons in the major leagues. "Look at Griffey: Here's a guy who never lifted weights, who just got some fluke things diving for balls and running the bases."

The Padres' Hutcheson says about seven of the nine players starting for any big league team have nagging injuries or symptoms. And, as players get bigger, stronger, and faster, those problems will only be exacerbated. "There is more stress on the joints, there is more velocity with increased speed, all kinds of things," Hutcheson says. "And everyone is more careful with a guy making $6 million than they would be if he were making a lot less than that. Those are all factors."

Others say more time is spent on the disabled list because certain injuries that were once career ending have now become lengthy rehabilitation stints. The so-called Tommy John surgery, named for an historic 1974 operation on the Dodgers pitcher, ushered in a new era of successfully replacing frayed arm ligaments - with a year or more of attendant rehabilitation. Current pitching stars Matt Morris, Kerry Wood, and John Smoltz have all suffered similar injuries and, with surgery, returned to pitch in the big leagues.

"The other thing you have going on is a lot more rehab assignments," says Mr. Reed, the Rangers trainer, referring to the practice of recuperating players spending as many as 30 days in the minor leagues before returning to the majors. "Guys used to fight that. Now they like the idea of getting some game experience and not coming back [from an injury] cold."

Former pro Keith Hernandez, now a New York Mets broadcaster, blames a combination of weightlifting and steroids for the increased injuries and extended disabled-list visits. Off-season weightlifting is fine, he says, but many players now lift regularly throughout the 162-game season, straining their bodies that much more.

"Weightlifting is fine for [muscle] tone and getting stronger, but I think many players today overdo it," Mr. Hernandez says. "Then they tighten up. It's a long season and you don't need to wear yourself out."

As for steroids, several players - including sluggers Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi (out for the season with an undisclosed type of benign tumor) - have been linked to an ongoing federal investigation into BALCO, a company accused of providing illegal performance-enhancing drugs to star athletes.

Baseball is known to have the weakest steroids policy of any of the major sports. And experts say it's difficult to know how many injuries in baseball are caused by steroids.

"I may be naive, but I don't think nearly as many players are using steroids as people think," says Mr. Reynolds, the ESPN analyst. "I just think injuries are a part of sports, especially as guys get bigger and stronger across the board."

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