Joe Posnanski
Monday March 9th, 2009

First off, why do they call the cartilage in your hip the "labrum?" Is this some sort of medical gag designed to confuse baseball writers? Because, seriously, it's working. We are confused. The labrum is the cartilage in the shoulder that protects the shoulder blade AND the labrum is also the cartilage that protects the hip joint. Really. Apparently there are not enough words in medicine.

In general, it has been the labrum in the shoulder -- the glenoid labrum according to the official medical source of the American Medical Association otherwise known as "Wikipedia" -- that has been the hot injury in baseball. Our good friend Will Carroll wrote a whole piece for Slate on the torn labrum being baseball's "most fearsome injury." A torn labrum finished off Robb Nen and Mike Sirotka, among many others (though Gil Meche appears to have come back from it). I think we were all pretty settled on what a labrum injury is.

Now, of course, the shoulder labrum is as yesterday as Britney Spears. Alex Rodriguez has a torn labrum in his hip. So now that's the labrum of choice -- it's sort of like when Kurt Warner replaced Curt Warner or when football Larry Johnson took over for basketball Larry Johnson or when LT came to mean LaDainian Tomlinson to a new generation (when LT will forever in my mind represent Lawrence Taylor).

Lots of people are speculating about what this will mean for A-Rod's career. I have to say: I have absolutely no idea. The doctors quoted seem to think he will be able to come back after this first arthroscopic surgery and play for the rest of the season, and those same doctors seem to think that he should have a full recovery after more intensive hip surgery in the offseason. That's certainly possible. They are doctors, they should know. Then again, a soon-to-be-34-year-old infielder facing two hip surgeries doesn't exactly seem like the world's best bet.

I would make a couple of points. One, there are not many third basemen who have had great years into their late 30s.

Best OPS+ seasons for third basemen (age 35 or older)

1. Chipper Jones, 2008, 36 years old, 174 OPS+ 2. Chipper Jones, 2007, 35 years old, 166 OPS+ 3. Mike Schmidt, 1986, 36 years old, 152 OPS+ 4. Mike Schmidt, 1987, 37 years old, 142 OPS+ 5. Wade Boggs, 1994, 36 years old, 141 OPS+ 6. Pete Rose, 1976, 35 years old, 141 OPS+ 7. Ken Caminiti, 1998, 35 years old, 132 OPS+ 8. Stan Hack, 1945, 35 years old, 132 OPS+ 9. Tony Cuccinello, 1945, 37 years old, 129 OPS+ 10. Tim Wallach, 1994, 36 years old, 127 OPS+

Point is, third basemen don't really tend to age very well. There's only one third baseman in baseball history who had an OPS+ better than 125 after turning 37, and that was Tony Cuccinello during World War II. So, even beyond the injury, most people were expecting A-Rod to simply maintain his greatness through age 40, and history might argue the point. Chipper Jones has held up extremely well, so it's not impossible. Of course, Chipper Jones has not played more than 134 games in any of the last four seasons.

The second point: Some third basemen do age well after they move to first base -- George Brett won a batting title at 37 as a first basemen, Pete Rose had a couple of good years as a first baseman, and so on. It would not surprise me if there was a position change for A-Rod in the future. Of course, I have heard that the Yankees have paid some pretty good money for a first baseman, Mark something-or-other, and so that might not be an easy move.

And while we're here, we might as well talk a little bit about the Yankees. I've read in a few places that the Yankees should be able to overcome the short-term loss of A-Rod, and I think it's possible, because they do have the makings of a dominant starting pitching staff. But to me this was a very flawed team before A-Rod got hurt. They are brutal defensively up the middle. Brutal. That will not help the starting pitching. Their bullpen before Mariano Rivera is shaky at best, and heck, even Mariano is 39 years old.

More than anything, look at that lineup. Jorge Posada turns 38 in August. Derek Jeter turns 35 in June. Hideki Matsui also turns 35 in June, and he's coming off an injury. Johnny Damon's already 35. Robinson Cano had a .305 on-base percentage last year, Nick Swisher hit .219, Xavier Nady is Xavier Nady. I mean, those guys are names, some of them, and maybe they all have a last hurrah in them. But maybe not. That lineup just reminds me so much of those teams you see that will not let go of the past -- kind of like the Kansas City Chiefs of the 1970s. The key to the Yankees lineup, for me, was Mark Teixeira repeating what he was able to do in Anaheim for a couple of months and A-Rod being A-Rod. Without those two things, I just don't see the Yankees -- even with all the money they spent on pitching -- being as good as the Red Sox or Rays.

Now, of course, A-Rod's season is a shaky proposition. His future is shaky, too. All those things that people predicted -- the home run record, the title of greatest player ever, the unanimous Hall of Fame selection -- are hazy. I do feel badly for him. He has been a great player who, in many ways, has not been fully appreciated. He's brought a lot of that on himself, of course, with his brazen grab for money and his admitted steroid use and, yeah, a few ill-timed playoff struggles. But I don't think those things make him much different from many of the other great players in baseball history.

I think of the beautiful line in Richard Ben Cramer's epic Esquire story about Ted Williams:

"He wanted fame, and wanted it with a pure, hot eagerness that would have been embarrassing in a smaller man. But he could not stand celebrity. This is a bitch of a line to draw in America's dust."

Richard has been working on a book about Alex Rodriguez, and I think I know why. Because A-Rod, like Williams, craved something desperately. I think A-Rod's case, it was more than fame, though he wanted that. It was more than money, though he wanted that, too. It's corny and amateur psychology, but I do believe that he has just wanted to be loved. And here is Alex Rodriguez. He has hit 553 home runs, and he has won three MVP awards, and he has made every All-Star Game for more than a decade, and he is rich, and he is famous, and he is a star. And, also, he's facing two hip surgeries and an uncertain future except for the certain boos that will surround him in every ballpark he will visit. It's a hell of a thing about life. You never know the ending until you get there.

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