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The Yankees and baseball’s toxic injury culture

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Brandon Drury and Greg Bird shared some old-school talk about playing while hurt. What gives?

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

One of the pleasant surprises early in the 2018 season has been the debut of Brandon Drury. Acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks over the winter, Drury was seen as a player who could hold down a vital infield role. He also had the potential to be an impact bat.

Early on, he’s looked good for the Yankees, with one major caveat. Drury’s committed three errors already, throwing the ball away while trying to record an out. Initially, I thought this might have been due to the weather; Drury spent most of his career in Phoenix and California, after all. Then on Friday we all learned it was a medical issue.

It turns out Drury has been dealing with migraines for his entire career. One of the most common side effects of migraines is blurred or double vision, which can impair one’s ability to consistently throw a small object to a single target. He’s currently on the disabled list while the team tries to find a solution to this chronic problem, and I’m left wondering how on Earth a professional athlete let a condition like this be a secret for so long.

Migraines aren’t just a simple headache, or even recurring headaches. If you know anyone who suffers from them, you’ll know they’re a debilitating attack on the central nervous system. They can last for days and their cause is still not explained, aside from the perceived role genetics and the environment play. In short, migraines are no different than any other chronic illness. Drury’s suffering not because of poor preparation or his own mistakes, but because his body unilaterally declared war on itself.

Why, then, were the Yankees so unaware of this chronic condition? The likely answer is that Drury bought into the macho, no-pain-no-gain attitude preached by athletes, coaches and fans. Players who express discomfort are regularly told to suck it up, get back out there, and all the rest. If they do end up missing time to repair their bodies, they are labelled soft or injury prone. Sometimes, the player’s own employer will publicly deride their desire to compete.

Yep, that was Greg Bird reference.

Along with Drury, perhaps no other current MLB player best represents the inherent contradiction of disclosing your health status quite like Bird. We all know how he missed the bulk of the 2017 season with a misdiagnosed foot injury, and he began 2018 on the disabled list with calcium deposits that often build in the body following the surgical removal of bones. Like Drury, Bird’s injury was not one of ignorance or unsafe practices, but rather his body fighting himself. Bird dealt with pain in the same foot all spring training, and kept his mouth shut because, well, manliness:

Repeated, for emphasis: “I hate to say I feel good when I don’t but there’s no other way, you keep going.“

Bird is one of a precious few workers in the developed world who has to live this way. For most full time employees, sick days are both mandated by law and actively encouraged within the organization. If you’re not healthy enough to come into work, don’t. Take the time you need to recover instead of “toughening through it”

The irony here should be obvious. Bird tried everything he could to stay on the field, but played terribly because he couldn’t stand or run properly. He was derided for poor performance in spring by fans and writers who had no idea he was hurt. Then, Bird admits that he was hurt, and the Nick Johnson 2.0 takes roll in. Players can’t win when it comes to their body, and it can affect not only their earnings potential but their long-term health as well. Hopefully, Bird’s foot will heal on its own, but migraines can last for a person’s entire life, and indeed have been hurting Drury for six years.

So where does this insane, “play through the pain” mentality come from? Our old friend, veteran presents:

Quite simply, who cares what people do or don’t want to hear? If you’re struggling with a health issue, scream and shout about it so you can get the treatment you need to recover.

Baseball has done a tremendous job throwing off the shackles of the old-school way. Front offices have evolved to resemble the leadership structure of a tech firm, and the ineffective practices of the past - like bunting or Baltimore chopping - have been replaced by better and more efficient on field strategies. This has trickled down to players, who know openly discuss launch angle and FanGraphs posts when a decade ago they’d be mocked and shunned for it. One of the last remaining bastions of the old school is the backwards attitude towards injury management, and if the Yankees want to keep their young talent on the field, they best find a way to break down that wall too.