When a player of significance is injured, it can be a problem for his team. When the player of significance has a lingering injury that doesn’t show up on an X-ray or an MRI, it can be a problem for the player.
This is the gray area where Jason Heyward currently sits (with an ice bag).
Chipper Jones did not necessarily call out his Braves teammate the other day when he said that Heyward “needs to realize [that] at 80 percent [he’s] a force,” and that, “There are a bunch of his teammates that are out there playing with discomfort and not healthy.”
But that’s about as close as you can come to saying, “Rub some dirt on it.”
Jones is team’s elder statesman. He is one of the clubhouse leaders. He’s also playing with a meniscus tear in his knee. If he says something, there’s a pretty good chance he is not the only one thinking it.
Heyward says he has a sore shoulder. Nobody doubts that. But injuries can be a dangerous thing when it comes to forming perceptions. At one end of the spectrum, we think of Willis Reed, dragging his injured leg onto the court at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of the NBA finals. At the other end, we think of J.D. Drew spending an inordinate time lounging on the disabled list and missing games with the Braves because he said he strained his neck while swimming in a friend’s pond. (Was the pond Loch Ness?)
No player in any sport is 100 percent after the season starts. That’s the message Jones was trying to get across. There are degrees of injuries. Most of them are taped up, shot up, iced and played with.
This might just be something Heyward still needs to learn. But at 21 years old and in season two of his career, it’s a bit premature to start labeling a guy (particularly after he was runner up for rookie of the year last season).
Braves general manager Frank Wren said Jones was merely “stating the obvious. We need Jason back in the lineup. I don’t think he was calling him out.”
He certainly did not suggest Heyward lacked toughness. But he chose his words carefully when asked if the club had any lingering concern that Heyward might not fully understand what injury he should or should not try to play through.
“I think that’s the balancing act for all young players,” he said. “Sometimes they’re dealing with injuries and aches and pains they’ve never dealt with before. You don’t want to mess with your career, so you’ve got to figure it out. That’s one thing we’re trying to help him work out – what can you play through and what can you make sure is healed before you play again.”
Wren said the Braves would rather Heyward sit out and heal up now than have the injury linger through the season. He also understands that sometimes players get reputations.
“To me that’s the difficult part,” he said. “Whether you’re in my position, a manager, a fan, a teammate, you’re not walking in that guy’s shoes. We have no doubt that Jason has discomfort in his shoulder, even though tests show there’s no structural damage. But there’s inflammation in there and it’s sore when he swings. Sure, we could’ve brought him back quicker. But we would be taking the chance that this could linger all year.”
Heyward is working with a physical therapist in Orlando. Soon, he’ll go to the minors on a rehab assignment for “several games,” Wren said, and eventually he’ll be back with the Braves. Nobody is putting any dates on this.
When he returns, Heyward will be greeted by a .214 average but a world of expectations to help a struggling offense. The guess here is that he’ll play through whatever soreness he has, barring a significant injury.
This is the closest Heyward has come to feeling any heat or criticism in his career. There’s a pretty good chance that it will have an impact And Jones is right about something: 80 percent of Heyward is still better than most of the Braves’ lineup.
By Jeff Schultz