Papi Sidelined: Medical Management in the High-Stakes Era of Professional Sports as a Business


Editor’s Note: Full disclosure, I am not a Medical Doctor and make no claim regarding the efficacy of my advice. I do, however, reserve the right to have a brain, read, conduct research and think for myself, which includes more than a layman’s knowledge of medicine since I was immersed in it growing up. And away we go…

Will Papi ever be right this season? Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Red Sox announced that David Ortiz will be sidelined for at least five to seven days after an MRI revealed that his right heel, injured in July of 2012, is still inflamed and balky. Papi’s achilles injury has been more than a curiosity. How can an injury that wasn’t even a rupture still be giving him so much grief nine months after the fact?

I have a friend, Lew, who lives in New Hampshire. Without revealing all the particulars, let’s just say that Lew’s got 20+ years on Papi. He was talking to the doctor who did his rotator cuff surgery and asked him what he thought was up with Ortiz. Lew also ruptured his achilles tendon a couple of years ago. He rehabbed it and continues to run 10-15 miles per week in addition to officiating high school basketball games.

"Lew’s doc said he’d heard through the grapevine that the injury is actually in a spot where the tendon meets the heel of Ortiz’ foot, an area that gets almost no blood flow and often never heals correctly."

I have first-hand experience with injuries in places that get no blood flow. In my twenties, strangely enough while playing basketball with Lew, I was floored by a much larger human being after setting a pick during a lunchtime basketball game. The collision threw me backward and in an attempt to break my fall I broke the navicular bone in my wrist. When I went to the doctor he said I would have been better off breaking the whole wrist because this tiny bone got very little blood supply and would take a much longer time to heal. I was casted for six weeks instead of four and after many months of rehabilitation I was able to resume normal sports activities and play my guitar. You know, all the things that make life truly worth living. A few conclusions can be drawn from this experience:

1. I sustained this injury in my twenties and it still took me months to recover from it.
2. I don’t walk on my hands.
3. As evidenced by Mike Napoli‘s recent diagnosis of avascular necrosis, bones that get poor blood supply either don’t heal well or die.

August 24, 2012; Boston, MA USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) prior to a game against the Kansas City Royals at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

While all this is interesting, the elephant in the room begs the $26 million question. How did this come to be and why wasn’t it discovered prior to Papi’s new contract offering? The doctor said that it’s an often mis-diagnosed injury because the pain is disguised in the achilles tendon. Still, it’s hard to imagine that a medical staff accustomed to managing high-ticket athletes not examining all the possibilities before the Sox pulled the trigger on a new contract with Ortiz.

The Red Sox medical staff has a new Director this year. The organization made further changes in the medical staff as well. Still, the nagging questions regarding diagnosing and managing athletes persist. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s ribs and back and Dustin Pedroia‘s foot in 2010 are just two recent examples of either really bad luck or suspect medical diagnoses and subsequent management.

As I said at the outset, I’m not a doctor. I’m just a fan who expects expert diagnosticians, skillful courses of treatment and, in the case of Ortiz, solid recommendations when it comes to the financial investment the organization makes in aging athletes. While it’s true that Boston pockets $4 million if Ortiz is out more than 20 days this season due to the achilles injury based on a protective clause in his contract, the Red Sox may have been better off not re-signing Papi and driving the dollars into what may still become Plan B in 2013. It pains me to say that. It also pains me to think about a season without a real DH in a Red Sox uniform.

Grab your lunch pail check for mail in your slot
You won’t get your cheque if you don’t punch the clock
Bus rider.
-Bus Rider, The Guess Who 


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