That Fine Line

Brian Wilson joked Sunday about going up to the broadcast booth during his time away from the field and winning an Emmy.  Forget that.  I’d give him an Oscar right now.  He is one our finest actors.

Sunday, he acted upbeat about possibly fading away into the background for a year, maybe more.  He regarded the possibility of a second Tommy John surgery like he was paying a traffic ticket, calling it a “mild bump in the road.”  It has to hurt a little more than that.


Then again, he’s been pretty good at hiding pain.  On Thursday at Coors Field, he heard a pop in his elbow, but told trainer Dave Groeschner and manager Bruce Bochy that he tweaked his ankle, convincing the Giants to keep him in the game.

The act could only go so far, however. His body language said something much different.  Then, Wilson’s pitches told the story. He couldn’t reach 90 on the radar gun.  Something was clearly wrong.


Wilson said he didn’t want to “walk off the mound a failure.”  Short-term, he didn’t.   In fact, it’s amazing he could even pitch at all and get out of a jam for what will likely be his final save of the season. 


Long-term, we’ll see.  Nobody doubts that if Wilson undergoes Tommy John surgery, he will work as hard as anyone at getting back.  But nobody knows whether he’ll come back with closer’s stuff.


Wilson walks that fine line most athletes walk when they deal with pain and injury.  Push yourself and win the admiration of your manager and teammates ?  Great, until you aggravate the injury and can’t help the team anymore.


Pace yourself and refrain from taking the field when you’re not 100 percent?  You get sideway glances from teammates and the hairy eyeball from your manager,  but maybe wise in the long run.


Some players have taken the latter option, but that’s not Brian Wilson.  Maybe he was nonchalant Sunday because he knew the day was coming:  he said he was on “borrowed time” after extending himself to the limit in 2010. 


Manager Bruce Bochy surely appreciated it at the time;  not so much now.  Bochy said Wilson can be “difficult to manage” because he doesn’t always tell the truth about his physical condition.  But the truth catches up to everyone, and it caught up with Wilson Thursday.


Who’s to say Wilson was wrong ?  He’ll always have a World Series ring, no matter what. In his world, that’s called “winning.”

Wilson says he wouldn’t have handled things differently. By last August he was dealing with a flexor tendon issue, not a ligament problem. That all changed this spring. 

By the end of spring, he finally ramped up and threw well against the A’s, but hid the fact he wasn’t completely comfortable. He wasn’t going to tell, however, and he was throwing in the mid 90’s at Coors until the elbow disengaged.


Wilson says he’s going to be around during his rehab, however long, become a “student of the game” and a “better teammate.” But players on the injured list become apparitions.  That’s the way it is.  That’s a not-so-fine line.


Wilson says it’s a chance to get “a better arm,” but even the man who performs so many of those surgeries, Dr. James Andrews, has said the odds are stacked against those who undergo a second procedure. “You can always get it redone, but it won’t be as good as the first time.” (USA Today, 7/18/07).

The track record is mixed. For every Doug Brocail and Al Reyes there is a Darren Dreifort. Jason Isringhausen has endured three surgeries and has compiled 300 saves, and at 39 is still pitching, for the Angels. Wilson will have a companion across the Bay if he goes under the knife, because A’s reliever Joey Devine is due for a second Tommy John surgery.

Is it Robb Nen 2.0 ?  Did Wilson sacrifice his career for a season of glory ?  Maybe, but my money is on a better outcome. 


One thing you have to say about pitchers who come back after two surgeries, and a grueling rehab ( or three, in the case of Isringhausen ), is that they must really love baseball. Or, you could say they have nowhere else to go.

Wilson will probably have options in the media after he’s done, but at 30 he isn’t ready to give anything up, and he truly loves the game as well. He also has a pretty big heart, as fans have already witnessed in the past couple of seasons.

Wilson is known to the casual fan for the beard, his quirky answers, The Machine, and the spandex tuxedo. He seems to enjoy the spotlight and he certainly has an ego, which was part of the problem in the way he handled his injury.

All that aside, Wilson is also a very smart player who has a work ethic like no other. You can tell he is already preparing himself mentally for the challenge ahead.

If he returns, will the Giants cut his pay and keep him, or let someone else claim him ? The Giants don’t necessarily owe Wilson, but there is such a strong tie between player and team that I can’t see the Giants casting him off to the four winds.

So, WHEN he returns, will he have closer’s stuff ? Or will he be another retread veteran middle reliever ? Wilson has been down this road once before and knows what to do, but the quote from Dr. Andrews is still ringing in my ears.

I also have this memory: I was there when Tommy John walked off the mound at Dodger Stadium in the middle of an All-Star season in 1974, his left arm limp at his side, his season and perhaps his career done.

He walked into a very uncertain future, with the same damaged ulnar collateral ligament that plagues Wilson now. Later that year, John underwent the first surgery in which a ligament from his other arm replaced the damaged one, performed by Dr. Frank Jobe.

The surgery didn’t have a name yet, but that would change.

John returned after more than a year and went on to win 164 more games (288 total ), pitching until 1989. There’s the famous line as he finally called it quits at age 46, after Mark McGwire got two hits off him.

McGuire’s father was John’s dentist, and John said “when your dentist’s kid starts hitting you, it’s time to retire.” John not only had a tremendous career, he had a surgery named after him, and he paved the way for numerous pitchers with an operation that saved many careers.

Still, John has never come close to getting enough votes for induction into the Hall of Fame. For me, it’s a no-brainer, but maybe the Veteran’s Committee will get a clue.

So, 38 years after the first TJ surgery, Brian Wilson is hoping he’s the latest whose career will be saved. Stay tuned for the next act.











One Response to “That Fine Line”

  1. Greg Olzack Says:

    Ray, it’s good to be able to read your thoughts again.

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