Is There A Doctor In The Clubhouse?


When the Cardinals signed pitcher Brad Penny to a one year, $8 million dollar contract on December 8, 2009, fans embraced the power pitcher as the final piece to solidify an uneasy rotation. And Penny started the year off impressively, averaging five strikeouts a game and keeping an ERA near 3.00. Then, after hitting a grand slam on May 21st, Penny came out of the game with an “aggravation” of the oblique muscle in his back, an injury that was pre-existing but ignored by team doctors. Team physicians Rick Wright M.D. and Michael Milne M.D. said the injury was not serious, and that Penny should rest the muscle and return in two to four weeks.

Penny never pitched again that year.

Sadly, the handling of Penny’s injury seems to be a symptom of an ongoing problem within the organization. Cardinals players are routinely misdiagnosed, prescribed the wrong course of action, and rehabilitated incorrectly. I imagine entering the training and medical facilities at Busch feels a bit like a Jew entering Auschwitz, with crazy medical experiments taking place in dimly-lit rooms, the patients chained to hissing steam pipes while squatting in bloody puddles. Leeches might still be used in the basement for cases of swelling, and snapping electrodes are applied liberally for muscle strains of any kind.

While such visions might be (slightly) exaggerated for effect, the truth is that the medical staff of the St. Louis Cardinals has a shocking record of incompetence. Let’s look at some examples from the last decade.

ALAN BENES – Benes was one of the more promising starters in the Cardinals system until he blew out his shoulder, once in 1998 and once in 1999. Head team physician George Paletta M.D. told Benes that there wasn’t anything significantly wrong with the shoulder which, in Paletta’s judgement, needed only a “clean up.” After two surgeries on Paletta’s torture slab, Benes had lost all of his velocity and was eventually dismissed by the team. However, four years later Benes returned to the team, and promptly pulled an oblique that was initially estimated at 2-4 weeks; he didn’t pitch in the majors that year.

MARK MULDER – After starting 2005 strong, Mulder suddenly bottomed out with a series of terrible pitching performances. Team doctors diagnosed Mulder with inflammation in the rotator cuff and shoulder, and they suggested a stint on the disabled list. He returned late in the season and failed miserably, leading to rotator cuff surgery with Paletta.

Mulder did not return from the surgery until September of 2007, at which point he didn’t show signs of improvement. Later, the team said Mulder needed yet another surgery with Paletta to “clean up” the shoulder. When Mulder returned in 2008, he couldn’t throw a pitch over the plate, and the team determined yet again that the shoulder needed to be repaired. Mulder has now retired.

SCOTT ROLEN– When Rolen injured his left shoulder in 2005, team physician Paletta declared that Rolen would miss 4-6 weeks and needed rest for the shoulder. Three days later, a different doctor discovered a tear in the labrum, and Rolen had Paletta perform the surgery to repair the shoulder and missed the rest of that season.

Rolen came back in 2006 to win Comeback Player Of The Year, although his shoulder continued to ache. In 2007, Rolen’s shoulder was hurting so badly that he went to the team physicians, who said there was nothing wrong and prescribed a stint of 15 days on the disabled list. Rolen, dissatisfied with the diagnosis, sought outside surgeons who eventually discovered deep scar tissue in the shoulder undiagnosed by team doctors. Rolen elected to have non-Cardinals surgeons perform the clean-up, much to the chagrin of Tony LaRussa and the front office. He was traded that winter.

CHRIS CARPENTER – In 2007 Chris Carpenter was in the midst of his first start of the year when he felt a pop in his right elbow. The initial diagnosis was a tear, and Paletta felt that rest would repair the ligament. Of course, it’s common knowledge to people in the medical profession that ligaments don’t just repair themselves because the tension in the muscle prevents the tissue from bonding. After three months of unsuccessful rest, Carpenter was sent to James Andrews M.D., who quickly determined that Carpenter needed Tommy John surgery. The months lost due to Paletta’s misjudgement pushed Carpenter’s return to September of 2008, much too late to make a difference in that campaign.

RICK ANKIEL –  The once promising pitcher-turned-outfielder developed a sports hernia, incorrectly diagnosed by Wright as an abdominal strain. Ankiel was told to go on light duty for two weeks in order for the strain to heal. Two weeks became a month, as LaRussa used Ankiel to pinch hit repeatedly, severely aggravating the hernia. The correct diagnosis was eventually made, and Ankiel received surgery to fix the ruptured abdominal muscle wall.

CHRIS DUNCAN – When Duncan began complaining about severe pain in his neck and shoulder, team physicians diagnosed the problem as a “pinched nerve.” After a month attempting to play through the injury, it was discovered that Duncan was actually suffering from a herniated cervical disc in his back, a career-threatening injury that required surgery. Duncan’s career never recovered.

KYLE LOHSE – Fresh off of receiving a ridiculous 4 year, $42 million dollar contract, Lohse is hit by a batted ball and experiences discomfort. The medical staff placed Lohse on the 15 day disabled list for “swelling.” The arm never recovered throughout the 2009 season and went untreated throughout the beginning of 2010, during which time Lohse continued to pitch with the medical staff’s blessing. Then, in May of 2010, it was discovered that Lohse was suffering from “exertional compartment syndrome” and required surgery to alleviate the problem. Nobody knows if he will ever regain his 2008 form that won him that giant – and useless – contract.

ADAM WAINWRIGHT – Major league baseball’s best pitcher over the last two years has actually been playing with a slightly torn ligament in his right elbow since 2004, but, aside from occasional pain, it has never caused any concern. However, the pain was intense enough for Wainwright to miss his last start of 2010, and worries began anew that Wainwright might be developing arm troubles. So, as a precautionary measure, team physicians examined Wainwright’s elbow in November. Their diagnosis? THE ELBOW WAS FINE!

Of course, five pitches into spring training, we all know how that ended up.

All of these examples lead me to ask one simple question: Can we please get a real doctor on this team??? Perhaps someone who doesn’t diagnose injuries by reading chicken entrails or by randomly pointing at pictures in My Big Book Of Sports Injuries while blindfolded?? Injured Cardinals would be better off having ME perform their surgery with a hardened McDonald’s french fry, Liquid Nails, and a couple of Star magazines as surgical dressing.

If the hackneyed voodoo practiced by the Cardinals medical staff only resulted in destroyed careers and wasted efforts, I might not care as much. But the costs of such gross incompetence – the lost tens of millions, the useless alternatives – are directly paid by the fans, who are gouged again and again to cover the losses. While Paletta, Wright, and the rest of the team doctors busy themselves by literally gutting team after team, the fans are the ones left with lingering scars in their pocketbooks and in their expectations.