“This is a dumb question,” I’d say to preface all the interviews for this piece. And in some ways, it really is. Dumb because it’s a yes-or-no question — the kind that’s bad for quotes and uninviting to follow ups. And dumb because the answer, as it turns out, is as self-evident as it seems.
But that’s precisely why I don’t get it! Which brings me back to confusion, questions.
So much of sports writing is done from a perspective of practiced familiarity. We ask players about the sport as people who can never understand it on a bodily level as well as they do, but who endeavor to bridge that divide as seamlessly as possible. In other words, we try not to look stupid by marveling, say, at the basic locomotions of the game. Sure, a monster home run or a nasty strikeout will inspire headlines about superhuman power and deftness. But, apparently, you’re not supposed to say that pop flies seem really hard to catch and that making soft contact stings like hell.
Or, that the most impressive part of a diving catch is not the catch but the dive and the fact that they do it at all because: Doesn’t that hurt?
“Yes,” said Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” said Yankees center fielder Cameron Maybin. Except that’s not saying much because I think it seems really, really bad.
Think about it: Do you ever land face first on the ground as part of your job? And if you did, wouldn’t that be the end of strenuous physical activity for the day, if not the week? I don’t mean that facetiously or as part of a self-effacing punchline. I’m used to seeing all sorts of athletic feats beyond my personal capabilities on a professional stage. But it’s not that I can’t imagine what it would feel like to belly flop onto the unforgiving earth — it’s that I can. Which is why I never do it, at least not on purpose.
“I don’t wanna say ‘hurt.’ It feels like … backyard football? You ever play backyard football? It just feels like playing backyard football,” Maybin said.
But I don’t play backyard football. Not at 29 years old.
“When you think that, your feet are on hard ground. You’re not really thinking about the grass. You’re not diving in here, you’re on grass,” Maybin explained from Yankee Stadium’s carpeted clubhouse.
Conditions do seem to be key. Not all diving catches are created equal when it comes to the pain factor.
“If the ground is wet, you slide. If you were running really fast and you got momentum and you actually slide well, no,” said veteran Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Jones, asked whether diving catches hurt. “If you don’t land well, yes.”
“Best time is when it’s been raining. You slide, it’s easy,” Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski said. “Warning tracks are not fun, walls are not fun. The wall is the last place you want to be.”
Alas, sometimes the last place you want to be is exactly where you are.
“Years ago, I caught it right at the wall, it was off [Robinson] Cano,” Jones said. “As soon as I caught it, I smashed into the wall. Next thing I knew, I had a busted bursa sac in my knee and had to get it drained. It looked like Zinfandel.”
(Apologies for including that analogy, but how much zin were you drinking anyway? Red, not white.)
And sometimes it’s not the place on the field but the ballpark itself that’s the problem. Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is a web gem machine, which is all the more impressive when you consider he’s making half those catches on artificial turf.
“That’s non-forgiving,” he said. “If your skin is just rubbing on that, it’s gonna give you a nice little friction burn. Those don’t feel good. I feel it five to 10 minutes afterward and then when I go shower. I have cuts constantly here from the outfield and then that hot water hits you, you realize that my skin was a little bit more banged up than I thought.”
KK's good for at least one of these a game.
... and it never gets old. pic.twitter.com/AAkGcptqVa
— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) June 30, 2018
So, OK, sounds like it hurts. And me? I don’t think I could make myself do it again after the first busted bursa sac or thigh-length turf burn.
“Yes you would,” Jones said. “If you were on the field, you would.”
“Adrenaline,” Kiermaier said. “If I did that just on my own time, it wouldn’t feel great. But when you’re out there in front of all the fans and everything, you see the ball in the air, for me I have a mindset where my eyes just light up. I can’t really speak for anyone else but for me: Adrenaline.”
“When the adrenaline goes away, that’s when it hurts the most,” Heyward said.
That seems to be the consensus. Ask about it in the clubhouse a few hours before game time and you’ll get seemingly logically inconsistent answers that Yes, it hurts, and No, if it comes up tonight, I won’t hesitate to hurl my only body onto the ground despite an evolutionary human inclination to preserve the species by avoiding experiences that previously induced pain.
“You’re not even thinking about it. You just go for the ball and jumping or diving, stuff just happens,” said Padres rookie shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who after taking the art of bodily disregard into the infield, has missed the latter part of his rookie season because of a stress reaction in his lower back. (That injury came from repeated swings.)
“It does hurt, but it’s part of our job and it’s what we gotta do for the game,” he added.
He would say that. He’s 20. Maybin, 32, said that he’ll still sacrifice his safety for a catch — but it better be a sure thing.
“Early in my career, it was like, run into walls, dive for everything. Now it’s like, OK let me take care of my body. So if I can’t catch this standing up, I gotta know I can catch it diving if I’m gonna lay out.”
Makes sense, especially when you consider that it feels a hell of a lot worse to fall flat on your face for no reason at all.
“It always hurts, but when you make the play, it feels a lot better. You don’t feel it as much,” Yastrzemski said. “But when you feel the ball trickle back behind you going to the wall you kinda lay there like, yeah that hurt a little more.”
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