The knee is an unpredictable and petulant joint—one that can take an inordinate amount of pounding, twisting and extending, then can buckle and tear while performing much less strenuous activities.
We’ve had some famous knees in Detroit sports.
Nick Eddy was a hard-running—even harder working—running back for the Lions in the late-1960s. A star at Notre Dame, Eddy started suffering knee injuries while playing under the Golden Dome. Those injuries followed him from South Bend to Detroit.
Eddy tried as hard as any human being could to keep himself healthy and be available to tote footballs for the Lions. But his knees betrayed him and his pro career never really got going.
Billy Sims took a pitch in Minneapolis one fateful Sunday in 1984 and swept to his left. A Vikings linebacker named Walker Lee Ashley leveled his helmet at Sims’ knee and blew it up. It was the last carry of Sims’ mercurial NFL career, after just four-plus years.
Mark Fidrych shagged fly balls in Lakeland in spring training, 1977, despite the warnings of teammate Rusty Staub. The clairvoyant Staub was right. Fidrych landed awkwardly on his right knee and “felt something slushy”—words he used to me as I spoke to The Bird via phone in 2007.
The “slushy” feeling turned out to be ligament damage, and contributed greatly to Fidrych not only missing most of the ’77 season, but indirectly causing him to overcompensate and develop arm trouble, from which he would never recover.
And who can ever forget the torture and pain that Steve Yzerman put himself through during the 2002 playoffs, his knee so ravaged that he would have to undergo highly unorthodox reconstructive surgery during the offseason? But the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, so mission accomplished, in the Captain’s eyes.
This after Yzerman, in 1988, slammed into the goal post the night he scored his 50th goal against Buffalo at Joe Louis Arena, knocking him out for the remainder of the season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.
So we know a little about daunting knee injuries in this town.
But these things are like deaths in the family—no matter how many times you experience it, the next one isn’t any easier to cope with.
The news of Victor Martinez’s major knee injury, the one that will likely cause him to miss the entire 2012 season, was something I caught in a “wait, what?” fashion.
I had the TV muted and was peeking in on the Red Wings game, during intermission. On the screen was a graphic and it had V-Mart’s photo and it said something about missing the entire 2012 season.
Surely I must have read it wrong. Or so I hoped.
The news was all too true.
That petulant knee, again.
Martinez, it turns out, was doing some agility drills as he prepared for his second season as a Tiger. No doubt the drills he did have been performed by tens of thousands of athletes in the past.
A slip of the foot and a knee buckle later and the Tigers, just like that, lost a .330 hitter who drove in 103 runs last year and who was invaluable as a consummate pro and teammate.
Players of Victor Martinez’s ilk simply don’t grow on trees.
So as the Tigers—and their fan base—try to come to terms with the news of Martinez’s expected 2012 absence, it helps to keep expectations to a realistic level.
Meaning, you ain’t replacing V-Mart with another V-Mart.
There are plenty of free agent options available. GM Dave Dombrowski’s cell phone just about blew up in the hours after Martinez’s injury was made public fodder, with calls from agents of players looking for work.
You’ve heard the names over and over by now.
Is there a Martinez on the list?
The closest is Prince Fielder and, while it’s intriguing to imagine Cecil’s kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it’ll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.
The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.
The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.
So the Tigers have to realize that they just won’t go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.
Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he’s a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn’t going to play in the field anymore—not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila’s backup.
But Vlad won’t hit .330 and he’s not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.
Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.
My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.
The next step in the coping/grieving process is to find perspective.
Yes, the Tigers lost a major cog to the machine when Martinez’s foot slipped and his knee exploded. No, they cannot hope to totally replace all that V-Mart brings to the table, on the field and off.
So what would you have them do, wave the white flag, a month before pitchers and catchers report? You want Dombrowski to throw up his hands and say, “Well, we might as well not even play the games this year?”
No. This is baseball. Teams lose star players to injury all the time and, often times, if they’re good enough, they overcome those injuries.
If losing Martinez was the only thing the other teams in the AL Central needed in order to bridge the 15-game gap between the Tigers and the second place Cleveland Indians, then the pessimists are right—may as well not even play the games this year.
But Martinez isn’t the only reason the Tigers ran away and hid from their Central brethren in 2011.
This is another bad knee injury that has slugged this city’s sports fans and it didn’t even happen during a game. In a way, that makes this even worse. The least Martinez could have done was get hurt actually playing baseball.
Last I checked, the Tigers still have 162 games to play this season. Last I checked, they were runaway winners of their division.
See you in Lakeland.