Inscribed on the back of Pete Stanicek’s T-shirt are these words: “Just Do It.”
If only it were that easy.
For most of spring training, all Stanicek has done is laps in the whirlpool, where he has nursed one injury or another, not the least of them to his psyche. At least, while in the tub, he doesn’t have to listen to suggestions that he is a college-boy wimp who can’t play with pain.
Baseball, like most businesses, is a fairly unforgiving institution, and among the worst sins a player can commit is to be injured, especially when no bones are showing.
“Some guys will drag a leg out there,” says Frank Robinson, the man who will determine Stanicek’s immediate future. “These are the guys we call gamers. You love that attitude, for selfish reasons. But a manager has to be selfish.
“Billy Ripken, I think he’d go out there with a broken leg. He’s the kind of guy you have to say, ‘Billy, you can’t play until they take the cast off.’ ”
Billy Ripken is the Orioles’ incumbent at second base, the position Stanicek was expected to challenge for this spring. If Ripken is the kind of player who would run through a brick wall, Stanicek, the Stanford graduate, would climb a ladder over the wall and twist his knee in the process, putting him on the disabled list.
“I know what people say,” Stanicek says. “They wonder if I’m tough enough. Only I know inside how I feel and how my leg is. If someone says I’m not tough enough or I don’t play hurt, it’s hard to change their minds. But, believe me, as soon as I can play, I’ll be out there, giving it everything I’ve got.”
A year ago, Stanicek suffered a broken wrist, and, since that point, he has had one injury after another, evoking memories of former Oriole Fred Lynn. When Stanicek’s wrist was hurt last year, the talk began. Why wasn’t it healing? Why wasn’t it healing much faster? This spring, he began with a bad back and, that cured, moved on to the hamstring pull that has him, well, hamstrung.
The hamstring has been a week-long affair and figures to last maybe a week more.
How hurt is hurt? Managers are reliably unsympathetic on this subject. Though Robinson says he understands that if a player says he’s hurt that he’s hurt, he adds this:
“Some guys play through pain. Some guys can’t. In this game, you have to play less than 100% if you want to make a career out of it.”
He also says that if Stanicek isn’t ready to play second base soon, he can forget the position for the near future, leaving him the outfield and designated hitter as possibilities. With Ripken hitting .200, Stanicek understands his inability to get out on the field is an opportunity missed.
“I need the time to judge him,” Robinson says. “It wouldn’t be fair to the team otherwise.”
Meantime, his teammates wonder what his problem really is, and Stanicek, who was never injured before last year, is getting pretty upset about the talk and its implications for him.
“I’m kidded all the time,” he says. “It’s frustrating. I try not to take it too seriously, but it’s easy for someone who’s not hurt to say, ‘I’ve played hurt before. I’d be out there.’ But they don’t know to what extent you’re hurt. Only you know that.
“Maybe if I had a three-year contract, I could sit on an injury. But I don’t. I’m trying to make the team and get a career going. It would make no sense for me to sit down. But people still think I should be out there. If I don’t play, I’m going back to Rochester. I don’t want to go back to Triple-A. I know I can play in the big leagues. It does me no good to sit in here. It’s as simple as that. There’s no other way to explain it.”
Where he is sitting is in the Orioles clubhouse. It’s a lively place this season, full of bright, new faces and young promise. For this spring, at least, it’s great once again to be young and to be an Oriole. Stanicek, 25, is young, and he has speed and can switch hit and plays the outfield and second base, meaning he should be one of the youngsters who figure to get a chance.
He has motive and opportunity, but he can’t seem to pull the trigger.
A bright young man, Stanicek certainly understands the stakes. His life, to this point, has been a steady pursuit of the game he loves, and to suggest he wouldn’t give himself every chance to take the next step would seem, on the face of it, pure folly.
On the other hand, the Orioles are loath to waste a spot on the roster to someone they wonder if they can rely on. A year ago, the then-lumbering Orioles were begging for someone with speed. This year, the Orioles can probably field a better relay team than baseball team.
“Last year, we were desperate for a leadoff hitter,” Robinson says. “We’re not in that situation any more.”
So it comes down to these few questions: Will Stanicek be ready in time? And if he does get ready, will he stay ready?
“Well, I think I’m tough enough.” Stanicek says.