Baseball firmly in the Age of Obliques
Rib cage injuries have increased in frequency in recent years
Noah Webster, lexicographer, on the oblique: "Any of the thin flat muscles forming the middle and outer layers of the lateral walls of the abdomen."Noah Lowry, former left-handed pitcher, on the oblique: "Ouch! It hurts to even wince." If there was a dawn for the Oblique Age in Major League Baseball, Lowry was a part of it. It was 2006, and Lowry strained his right side throwing a pitch in the Giants' April 7 home opener -- five days after signing a deal to keep him in San Francisco through the '09 season. By 2007, the one-time No. 1 Draft choice was done, a quick spiral begun by that one fateful pitch. "Pull it," Lowry said of the oblique, "and you know it's more than a minor injury. You can't do anything." Obviously, the recent siege of oblique injuries isn't groundbreaking, even if the frequency has you shaking your heads. We're still in May, and more than two dozen leading men have been disabled by strained obliques. Lowry was at the forefront of the breakout of a pretty rampant epidemic in 2006, for instance: Albert Pujols, Nomar Garciaparra, CC Sabathia, Milton Bradley and Mark Prior were only a few drops in that season's oblique bucket. The designation "oblique" began to appear on disabled lists only a few years prior to that, which doesn't mean baseball players had all of a sudden found a new muscle to injure. "This isn't a muscle that was just discovered in the last 15-20 years. It's always been part of the human body," said Minnesota outfielder Delmon Young, who missed 16 days earlier this season with a strain of his left oblique. "Whatever they called it in the past, you know it was still happening." Medical personnel, and thus their players/patients, simply tended to generalize about the injury. They went generic. "In the past," said Ken Crenshaw, the D-backs' head athletic trainer, "it was probably grouped as a rib-cage injury, or even general abdominal soreness." "We used to say, 'I hurt my ribs,'" concurred Ron Gardenhire, the Twins manager who had a five-year career as a Major League infielder in the early 1980s. "We didn't get technical about it. Now everything is so much more in-depth, detailed. Everyone wants more explanations. "People want to know. 'He hurt his foot? Which foot?' Figure it out for yourself -- watch him walk, and see how he's limping." That bit of admittedly facetious advice wouldn't help with oblique injuries, of course, because they are "invisible," devoid of outward physical signs. A fact that is amusingly in line with the non-medical definition of "oblique" as something "not explicit or direct in addressing a point." The stealthy nature of oblique injuries naturally complicates their detection and recovery. Well, maybe not the detection: When a player does something bad to an oblique, the evidence is instant and dramatic; it renders him virtually immobile. "Players will pretty much let you know," said Dave Pruemer, the Twins' assistant athletic trainer. "You have to use common sense; if you strain it, there are things you won't be able to do. Players sometimes are unsure of what they've done, but when even the act of getting out of bed becomes hard and painful -- that's a pretty good clue." "You don't realize how many normal activities it affects until you pull it," said Arizona outfielder Justin Upton, who missed big chunks of both the 2008 and '09 seasons with oblique injuries. "It's a hard thing to deal with. The pain ... you feel it when you cough, laugh, walk, turn over in bed." "Or breathe," Chris Young chipped in. "You use that muscle every day, in anything you do." In doing baseball activities, it is critical. "Everything you do in baseball is rotational," Crenshaw pointed out. "So many movements pivot around the oblique." "As big a role as torque plays in this game," Upton said, "it becomes a hard thing to deal with." One of the hardest things to accept -- particularly if you already have a history with the pain and the slow recovery -- is the awareness that the injury can be triggered by the most mundane action. Throwing, swinging ... not swinging. Atlanta outfielder Nate McLouth became the latest victim on Sunday, when he checked his swing during his first-inning at-bat in Anaheim, straining his left oblique. He went on the DL on Monday. The injury has become so prevalent, last weekend the Twins were able to make a two-for-one oblique deal: They lost right-hander Glen Perkins, but got back Jim Thome and Jason Repko. Thome, who missed three weeks after being DL-ed in early May, belongs to a who's who of oblique patients this season: Travis Hafner, Marco Scutaro, Derrek Lee and Mark Teahen are among those out now; Evan Longoria, J.J. Hardy, Jon Garland, Jair Jurrjens, Torii Hunter and Brian Wilson were among those out earlier. That latter group had to overcome not only the injury itself, but apprehensions of incurring a setback if they tried to return prematurely. "Players want to get back, so they tend to push it," Pruemer said. "You pretty much have to trust them on how they feel, because an MRI can tell you only so much about this type of injury." "For me, it became a mental thing. You're very cautious about re-aggravating it," Upton said. "At first, your mind is just on not wanting to do it again, so you tend to do things very tentatively." After his second oblique injury, Upton became very aggressive about doing everything possible to prevent yet another recurrence. "In the [2009-10] offseason, I did a ton of exercises for it," he said. "There's a few things you can do, core exercises to strengthen that area." "But the trouble is, no one has a magic bullet," said Crenshaw, the Arizona trainer. "In theory, you can do preventative things, like a stable program for a balanced core." "Strengthening the area" may be counterproductive, in the view of some. Like any debate, this one has two sides, in this case across a generational gap. The way-we-were gang suspects today's players made themselves more muscle-injury prone through obsessive workouts. "Guys now always stay in great shape," Gardenhire said. "In my day, few guys were ripped. We didn't do any stomach exercises. We got ready for the season by hitting, throwing and playing basketball to keep your legs in shape. We didn't do any upper-body stuff." "We stretched. We didn't do weights," said Bert Blyleven, who in 1992 ended a 22-year, 287-win career that culminated in his election to the Hall of Fame in January. "Doing weights tightens muscles -- making them more prone to straining or snapping." Concluded Blyeleven, "Players are bigger, stronger ... but are they as flexible?" In one sense, The Dutchman was reviving an old point: Being in great shape and being in great baseball shape isn't necessarily the same thing. No one will argue the point that when you strain an oblique, you aren't in shape for anything.