On September, 27th, 2008, Brandon Webb made his final start of a 2008 season that saw him go 22-7 with a 3.30 ERA in 226.2 innings pitched, good for a second-place finish in the NL Cy Young Award voting. It was his third straight season with 16 or more wins, his third straight season with an ERA 3.30 or lower (40% above average), his third straight season that he was an All-Star, his third straight season of finishing second or better in the NL Cy Young Award voting, and fifth straight season of 200 more innings. And at just 29 years old, it looked like more of the same would be coming and that by the time it was all said and done, Webb might have a real chance at the Hall of Fame. But instead, Webb’s final MLB start came just a little over 6 months later on April 6th, 2009, when he allowed 6 runs in 4 innings before leaving with a shoulder injury. He tried to rehab for the next four months, but he was eventually forced to undergo surgery to repair a frayed labrum in his shoulder in August. That surgery would sideline him for all of 2010 as well before Webb became a free agent and signed with the Texas Rangers. He made four rehab appearances at Double-A for the Rangers, allowing 13 runs in 12 innings, before getting sidelined again, and that was it. He was a perfectly healthy pitcher, going on the DL once in 2003 but not a single time the next five years, and then one shoulder injury happened and not only was he never the same, he was gone. That’s not a story without a parallel in baseball history- plenty of great players suffered a debilitating injury that ruined their career. But at this point in time, when so many injuries that would have been career-ending years ago becoming an easy fix today, it makes you take a step back and realize that we’re not invincible and we’re awfully far from it. Suffer an elbow injury as a pitcher these days, and you’ll probably be fine. But one shoulder surgery and suddenly everything goes into question and if you’re not lucky, your career goes up in the flames. It’s sad what happened to Brandon Webb- but it puts into the forefront the fact that no matter how far we’ve come, we have a long way to go, and even as we say that a Sandy Koufax-style story could never happen today, it most certainly can and it inevitably does. Even if we think that our athletes- our heros- are stronger, faster, more durable than ever, they’re doomed to fall apart, some far sooner than they deserve, and we just have to hope that ones who do collapse are not the ones on our team.
James Shields had a great career for the Rays- but it could have never gotten started. He had shoulder surgery way back in 2002, and that could have very well been it for him. How lucky is Shields, how lucky are the Rays, and how lucky is everything single Rays fan that he got past that surgery and became one of the greatest pitchers the Rays have even seen? What about J.P. Howell? He missed all of 2010 and wasn’t the same in 2011 after shoulder surgery, but how fortunate is he that he came back in a huge way in 2012 and signed a free agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers? Shields and Howell are the outliers, not the norm, and if things had played out any other way, the Rays would have never become the team they are today. As Rays fans hear about Brandon Webb’s retirement, their first reaction has to be to realize how lucky they are that the Rays pitchers who faced similar situations did not meet the same fate.