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The Strike Zone

Oft-injured Carl Pavano, favorite target of backpages, retiring after 14 seasons

Carl Pavano Carl Pavano made just 26 starts as a Yankee during the life of his four-year, $39.95 million contract. (Jason Szenes/AP)

On Wednesday, Carl Pavano announced his retirement, bringing down the curtain on a major league career that spanned from 1998 through 2012 and included far more controversy — and injuries — than most. Indeed, Pavano's career ended with his most serious ailment of all, a life-threatening ruptured spleen suffered while snow-shoveling in January 2013, thwarting his plans for a comeback.

Indeed, injuries prevented Pavano from reaching his full potential and made him an easy target for the media, particularly throughout his four-season stay with the Yankees during which he was saddled with the nickname "American Idle." At least part of his notoriety owed to the fact that prior to joining New York, he helped the Marlins beat the Bronx Bombers in the 2003 World Series.

Born and raised in Connecticut, right around the mythical borderline between Yankees and Red Sox fans, Pavano was drafted out of Southington High School in the 13th round in 1994. He pitched well enough in the minors that he entered the 1997 season ranked number 17 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, and after a big season at Triple A Pawtucket climbed to number nine. He never threw a pitch for Boston at the major league level; instead he was one of two pitchers (Tony Armas Jr. was the other) sent to the Expos in exchange for the 1997 NL Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez.

Pavano was expected to become an ace for Montreal himself, but he never lived up to that billing. He couldn't seem to manage whatever burden of expectations came with the trade, and he struggled to manage the physical rigors of a full season. He debuted for the Expos on May 23, 1998 with a strong seven-inning effort opposite the Phillies' Curt Schilling and finished his rookie season with a 4.21 ERA (100 ERA+) in 23 starts and one relief appearance. Alas, tendonitis in his elbow cost Pavano two months of the following campaign, and he was lit up for a 5.63 ERA when he did pitch. He got off to a very strong start in 2000, with a 3.06 ERA through 15 starts, but bone chips in his elbow sent him to the disabled list in late June and required season-ending surgery in August.

Pavano didn't make it back to the majors until Aug. 15, 2001, and he was raked for a 6.33 ERA in eight starts, though that was mostly the product of three early shellackings that left him with a 20.52 ERA; he cruised along at a 2.88 clip the rest of the way, with five straight quality starts. He couldn't maintain that level, pitching his way out of the Expos' rotation in the first half of 2002 and being traded to the Marlins on July 11 as part of an eight-player deal that sent Cliff Floyd to Montreal. The final tally on the Martinez trade: 2.6 WAR in parts of five seasons for Montreal (Armas added another 8.9) in exchange for Martinez's two Cy Youngs, a world championship and a whopping 53.8 WAR for Boston. Ouch.

After a solid late-season run in Florida's rotation to end 2002, Pavano started to put it together the following season. While his 4.30 ERA (98 ERA+) was nothing to write home about, he did throw a team-high 201 innings with an exceptional 3.4 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio. Teaming with fellow young hurlers Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis and Brad Penny, he helped the Marlins win the NL wild card, then put up a 1.40 ERA and 15/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 1/3 innings in a swingman role in the postseason. He notched two wins in relief in the Division Series against the Giants including the Game 4 clincher, started Game 6 of the NLCS against the Cubs (the infamous Steve Bartman game) and delivered eight innings of one-run ball in Game 4 of the World Series against the Yankees, which Florida won in 12 innings, the first of three straight wins that gave the Marlins the championship.

The afterglow of the that World Series triumph produced a fling with actress Alyssa Milano as well as Pavano's best season. In 2004 he went 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA and 5.3 WAR in 222 1/3 innings, earning All-Star honors and down-ballot Cy Young Award support for the only time in his career. That walk year springboarded him to a four-year, $39.95 million free agent deal with the Yankees, a contract that put him under the microscope. His injuries gave him a reputation for being soft among teammates, and the tabloids, particularly the New York Daily News, couldn't resist piling on.

It didn't start out badly; Pavano posted a 3.69 ERA over his first 10 starts for the Yankees, one of which was a five-hit shutout over the Mariners, but his effectiveness soon decreased. Yankee fans booed him off the mound in the fourth inning of his May 28 start against the Red Sox, a game that mushroomed into a 17-1 loss. Diagnosed with tendonitis in his rotator cuff, he hit the DL in late June with a 4.77 ERA through 17 starts, and despite making two rehab starts, he didn't return to the big club.

Back problems that went unreported were apparently the root cause of his shoulder problems. “I wish I had been smart enough to just get it right,” he later told the New York Times. “Say something, make sure something was taken care of, instead of just keeping pitching and thinking it was going to get better.” As it turns out, the tendonitis was actually a misdiagnosed stress fracture in his humerus, something that wasn't caught until he visited Dr. James Andrews.

It wouldn't be the last time that he was poorly served by New York's medical staff, or that he would fail to report an injury. In the spring of 2006, his back woes flared up again ("BROKE BACK: Plagued Pavano may miss two weeks," blared the Daily News' back page). In his lone exhibition start, he fell on his rear end fielding a groundball; instead of chalking his injury up to more back trouble, the Yankees announced that he had been shut down with "bruised buttocks." With a public relations department making jokes about you like that, who needs enemies?

Pavano began that season on the DL, and in May had surgery to remove a bone chip the size of a marble from his elbow. While rehabbing, he hydroplaned his Porsche and cracked his ribs. He hid that injury from the team until elbow soreness forced him to own up. Not only did it make for another rough round in the tabloids (Daily News: "CRASH TEST DUMMY: Yanks irate as Pavano fails to tell them about car wreck & cracked rib"), but the Yankees opened an internal investigation against him, and general manager Brian Cashman didn't rule out attempting to void his contract. His teammates took aim as well. "I hope his car didn’t get dinged up too bad; I heard it’s a Porsche,” said Johnny Damon to the New York Times. A police report said Pavano was at fault for the accident, which caused $30,000 in damage to his car and $20,000 worth of damage to a sanitation truck. Shortly afterward, the team determined that he would not pitch for them for the remainder of the season due to his injuries.

Pavano survived the 2007 exhibition season physically unscathed, but when teammate Mike Mussina told the media that Pavano "needs to show us he wants to pitch for us," it led to another Daily News potshot ("Moose's message to slacker Pavano: SHOW SOME GUTS") and a closed-door meeting between the two pitchers. Meanwhile, the driver of the sanitation truck sued him and the Yankees for $5 million in damages, charging that he was "careless, reckless and negligent," and his aspiring model girlfriend told the New York Post that he cheated on her, so she broke up with him.

When injuries felled Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, Pavano improbably wound up as the team's Opening Day starter in 2007. He threw four strong innings before falling apart in a four-run fifth against the Devil Rays, and while he turned in a solid seven-inning, two-run performance in his second start, he experienced further elbow pain. Reportedly, he went to four different doctors before it was definitively decided that he needed Tommy John surgery, which he underwent on June 5, 2007. When he returned to the majors in August 2008, the Yankees were en route to their first finish outside the playoff picture since the 1994 players' strike.

Pavano's 5.77 ERA in seven late-season starts didn't inspire much confidence, though Cashman stood up for him as the pitcher's days in pinstripes dwindled:

In any case, Cashman said, he does not blame Pavano for wondering what different steps he might have taken. If anybody can relate to Pavano’s frustration, it is Cashman, who championed his signing.

“At the end of the day, he was hurt,” Cashman said. “People always say, ‘Why do you stick up for him? Is it because you signed him?’ I’m just being objective. The guy, I know, can pitch when he’s healthy. He just hasn’t been healthy. It’s not because he mentally wanted it that way. It just happened.”

Pavano signed an incentive-based $1.5 million deal with the Indians in January 2009. He didn't pitch very well, getting rocked for a 5.37 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine, but the playoff-bound Twins were willing to bring him on for the stretch run, and he was more effective; his 4.64 ERA belied strong peripherals (a 3.55 FIP), owing more to a sizzling .332 BABIP. In one of his career's myriad ironies, he made his first postseason start since 2004 against the Yankees. He whiffed nine in seven innings during his Division Series start, but a pair of seventh-inning solo homers by Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada carried New York to victory.

Pavano liked his time in Minnesota well enough to accept the team's arbitration offer and sign a one-year, $7 million deal, and he responded with one of his best years, going 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA in 32 starts and 221 innings. He wasn't exactly greeted warmly when he returned to the Bronx for an April start; even the closed captioning booed him. Nonetheless, his performance helped the Twins win the AL Central again, but they fell to the Yankees in the Division Series; again, his former team broke through against him in the seventh inning of his Game 2 start after he'd kept them at bay for the first six frames.

Pavano parlayed that strong performance into a two-year, $16.5 million deal with Minnesota, but he didn't make it through the first season unscathed. He was the target of an extortion attempt by a former high school classmate alleging a homosexual affair and claiming that he would go forward with a $1.2 million book deal unless Pavano bought him a Range Rover. Once the season began, Pavano made just 11 starts in 2012 before a shoulder capsule injury forced him to the disabled list for the remainder of the season.

The following January, Pavano fell while shoveling snow in his Vermont driveway; the handle of the shovel jammed into his midsection, but he didn't realize he'd ruptured his spleen until four days later, and soon after seeking medical attention, his lung collapsed and he needed surgery to remove 6 1/2 liters of blood from his chest cavity. The injury was initially projected to keep him out 6-8 weeks, but he lost so much strength that he never made it onto a mound.

Pavano announced plans for a comeback this past December, but continued complications from the spleen injury prevented him from carrying it through, leading to his decision to retire. He ends his career with a 108-107 record, a 4.39 ERA and 17.0 WAR in his 14 major league seasons. While he made good money during his time, in retrospect it feels as though he got a raw deal during his career.

Not only was Pavano forced to battle so many injuries, he had to fight the growing perception that he lacked the will to play, something that often exacerbated his woes and alienated him from his teams. Still, it bears remembering that most in-season rehab work is done far from the eyes of a player's teammates. Pavano could have walked away from the game a whole lot earlier, his financial future secure. Time and again, he fought his way back through the arduous months on the sidelines and in the minors. We can only wonder what might have been with a bit more luck.
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