Schmuck: Britton news highlights culture of players trying to return from injuries too quickly

It now appears that closer Zach Britton will not return from his second stay on the disabled list until midseason, which is sure to spawn some second-guessing about the way he and the team handled the forearm soreness that initially forced him out of the Orioles bullpen more than three weeks ago.

Britton was quick to blame himself when it became apparent he wasn't really ready to come back last week in Boston. He conceded that he was advised by the team's medical and training staff to give the injury more time to heal but felt he was ready to come back after a couple of minor league rehabilitation appearances for the Double-A Bowie Baysox.

So, why didn't the team simply tell him cool his jets? The Orioles had a couple of bullpen hiccups the weekend before in New York, but right-hander Brad Brach was doing an admirable job as the fill-in closer and that series at Yankee Stadium was the first series the team had lost all year. It wasn't exactly panic time.

The answer lies more in the culture of professional sports than any organizational conspiracy to rush a key player or the desire of that player to get back on the field for either competitive or financial purposes.

Just about every injured player tries to come back early if there is any flexibility in the recovery period. It's just part of the athletic ethos that exists — to some extent — in every sport, but it is more pronounced in a baseball clubhouse because the players essentially live together for nearly eight months a year and are particularly sensitive to the void that is created when they can't play their role on the team.

Maybe it's the same all over, but it could be magnified by the "Play 160" ethic that has been organic in the Orioles organization since Cal Ripken Jr. was chasing down Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record and is embodied by current superstars Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Chris Davis.

Manager Buck Showalter often talks about players being "trustworthy," which is another way of saying they don't want to let their teammates down.

"I think it's the way guys are wired," Showalter said. "It goes back as far as Ripken, I think. Adam talks about … 'Here, we post up and we play.' To an extent. It's not like you're going, 'Hey, you've got to play hurt or whatever.' You don't do that, but there's a certain pride they take in being there for their teammates and being somebody that can be counted on."

That's a great quality, until it combines with the restlessness that builds while a player spends a prolonged period on the disabled list.

"I think you do have a sense of accountability as a team," said veteran reliever Darren O'Day, who struggled with injuries last season and felt that frustration. "Guys have been together here for quite a few years. Zach knows that when he's 100 percent and pitching well it makes our bullpen even better and our team even better.

"When you're on the DL, you're worrying about all kinds of stuff. You're worrying about your injury. You're worrying about if you're hanging your teammates out to dry and you just want to come back and play and get back to that feeling of doing the job you're meant to do."

Some injuries take the guesswork out of it. If a player breaks his arm, there's usually a medical track record for the length of time it takes to recover and resume activities. Britton's forearm soreness was open to interpretation and there's only one person who knows exactly how it feels.

The Orioles were in a similar situation with Chris Tillman, who suffered setbacks after returning from shoulder soreness late last season. Clearly, first baseman Chris Davis came back too soon from the oblique injury that lingered throughout the 2014 season.

Guys want to play and the teams that pay them millions of dollars to do that are going to let them if they say they're OK.

Davis said he never felt pressure from his teammates or coaches to play through the oblique strain — or a lingering hand injury in 2016 — but he did put pressure on himself to get back onto the field as soon as possible.

"I think it's internal," he said. "You're so used to coming to the field every day and preparing to play a game and being able to contribute in some way. When you're not able to do that, I think there's just a sense of urgency that you have to come back. You have to give credit to the training staff and all the people involved who are telling you that you have to slow down and be smart about it. But it's a lot easier to be wise when you're looking at it from the outside."

Shortstop J.J. Hardy has had to deal with time-consuming injuries the past two seasons and knows how that can play with your mind.

"Nobody likes being on the DL," Hardy said. "I think when you're on the DL, you know that every other player is playing with some sort of pain or injury. You question it like, 'If I'm feeling it a little bit, is it basically normal at this point?' I think peer pressure definitely factors in, but it's hard — anytime you're coming off the DL — to know how long to take because if you're taking a couple extra days because you have no pain, should you have come back three days earlier? It's hard. It's really hard."

That doesn't mean the team bears no responsibility for getting it right when a player goes down with a significant injury. The fact that Britton was allowed to come off the disabled list after a couple of weeks and now will likely be out a couple of months is proof that the situation wasn't handled very well.

It's pretty obvious that the unusual nature of the injury allowed Showalter and the front office to depend too much on how Britton said it felt and not enough on the expertise of the doctors and athletic trainers. But before anyone assumes that the team deliberately disregarded a firm medical opinion that Britton was not ready, understand that the situation was far from that simple.

Showalter "wants you back, but doesn't want you back at 50 percent," O'Day said. "He doesn't want you back if you're going to compromise yourself or the team, because if you're not right, you're not going to be a major league player."

In the absence of X-ray or MRI evidence of serious structural damage, the team still has to depend on how the player characterizes his condition. Obviously, that sometimes creates enough of a gray area for everyone to believe what they want to believe and act accordingly.

This isn't peculiar to the Orioles organization. Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker said this week that he always tried to come back from injuries too quickly when he was a player and has had to deal with the same problems as a manager. The bottom line, he said, is that nobody wins when a player comes back prematurely.

"That's very tough," Baker said. "It puts pressure on the fitness and training staff and when it does, ownership is asking questions, the press is asking questions, the fans are asking questions. Even the players start asking, 'Is it in my mind or is it in my arm?' and 'When am I not being gutsy enough to fight through it?' or 'When am I being stupid?'"

As one veteran player put it in this situation, "There's a thin line between tough and stupid."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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