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Callous disregard

Former World Series stud Josh Beckett's blistering fastball also his curse

Posted: Friday July 23, 2004 12:16PM; Updated: Friday July 23, 2004 12:36PM
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Stephen Cannella: Beckett's fastball also his curse
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The dog days approacheth, and I'm reminded of something former Pirates first baseman Kevin Young once said to me about getting through the doldrums of a baseball season. As usual Pittsburgh was hopelessly out of the race -- if I'm not mistaken Young never played for a winning team during his 10-year career -- and I asked him how he faced coming to the park every day knowing that he wouldn't play a meaningful game until the following April. "I keep telling myself this builds character," he said. "I must be building the Empire State Building of character." ...

A few random thoughts on our national pastime:

The Marlins are expecting to get Josh Beckett back in their rotation some time in the next week. You remember Beckett: World Series MVP, one of the cockiest gunslingers in the game, paramour of Best Damn Sports Show correspondent Leeann Tweeden, and the owner of baseball's most blistering fastball. Literally. For the fifth time in his young career Beckett landed on the disabled list with a debilitating blister on his pitching hand. It sounds like a practical joke: Beckett is blessed with a superhuman right arm and cursed with delicate skin that Palmolive Madge no doubt fantasized about.

I know it's a real problem -- you see pitchers leave starts because of blisters all the time -- but it's amazing to me that after years of throwing Beckett hasn't figured out a solution or simply calloused up. It sounds like he's tried everything. He's soaked his hands in clubhouse staples like pickle brine. He's thought about changing the way he grips the ball. He tried wearing a sock on his throwing hand when he long-tossed between starts. He's consulted with burn doctors in Miami on ways to strengthen his skin. For a time last year he had success with something called Stan's Rodeo Cream, a gooey brown ointment invented by Dodgers trainer and former rodeo cowboy Stan Johnston. The best treatment is to simply stop throwing before things get, well, out of hand. But as Beckett tacitly admitted a few weeks ago, baby-smooth fingers aren't the manliest excuses for leaving a game. "To have something like that holding you back is a frustrating deal," he said. "It's tough to say, 'I got a blister coming on. I think I'll shut it down.'"

Beckett hasn't admitted to trying the Moises Alou method of blister prevention: Earlier this season the Cubs outfielder, who doesn't wear batting gloves, said he urinated on his hands to toughen the skin. (The Yankees' Jorge Posada vouched for the trick's effectiveness, though presumably he uses his own urine, not Alou's.) Having shaken hands with Alou and many other major leaguers over the years I'd rather not know how widespread this practice is.

Beckett's blisters, and the lengths players will go to prevent them, make what Greg Maddux is doing all the more impressive. Maddux notched his 298th career win Thursday -- it was a vintage, 92-pitch, slightly-over-two-hours complete game -- and will soon become the 22nd member of the 300-win club. Beckett is a perfect example of why the 300 Club is now the toughest to join in baseball. He certainly has the stuff to win 300 and, since he broke in with the Marlins at such a young age, seemed likely to play long enough to accomplish the feat. But those delicate hands mean he probably has no shot now.

Nagging injuries are just one of the factors that work against pitchers trying to pile up historic win totals. Pay attention to what Maddux is doing, because we won't see another 300-game winner for a while. While the 500 Home Run Club is becoming easier to join than your local muni golf course -- Ken Griffey Jr. became the 20th member this season, but at least four other hitters are poised to reach the milestone over the next two years -- the 300 Club is Mensa tough. After Maddux the active pitchers with the most wins are Tom Glavine (258), Randy Johnson (240) and David Wells (206), none of whom are likely to last long enough to get to 300. The pulseless Maddux may act like his milestone chase isn't a big deal, but it is. ...

On an unrelated topic: What do you treasure more, your freedom or your beer? Earlier this week four prisoners in Rogersville, Tenn., gave a pretty definitive answer. On Monday someone left the doors to the Hawkins County Jail unlocked. Four inmates snuck out, walked to a local market, bought a couple cases of beer ... and then walked with the the brew back into jail, returning through the door they had propped open with a Bible. Can't say I would have done the same thing. ...

It was an extraordinarily good week for jailbreak stories. I thought this one was entertaining. A quick summary: In May six inmates broke out of the Surry County Jail in Mount Airy, N.C. (They tunneled through a sheet-rock ceiling with a tool fashioned from fingernail clippers and a toothbrush.) Once free they did what escaped prisoners do: Swiped a pickup truck, cavorted on the outside for a while, then got hauled back into the pokey. Before being reincarcerated one of them recapped the adventure in a poem, which was found by the owner of the stolen truck when he recovered his vehicle. That guy passed the verses on to a musician friend who quickly wrote a twangy accompaniment and recorded "em>Surry County Jailbreak. (Chorus: "We got no Bonnie Parker, just way too many Clydes.") The song is now a hit on local radio. (And if you can make it in Surry County you can make it anywhere.) Hmmm, small town, ultra-lax prison security ... if this sounds like something that might happen in Mayberry, it should. Mount Airy is Andy Griffith's hometown....

Finally, a tip of the cap to Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays for sitting down for what he believes in. Delgado has been staging an understated one-man protest against the war in Iraq by refusing to stand for the playing of God Bless America, which became a seventh-inning stretch staple after 9/11. In most parks it's now played only on weekends and holidays. It's still played during every game at Yankee Stadium, however -- George Steinbrenner fancies his squad as America's Team -- and Delgado's protest got a lot of attention when the Jays visited New York this week.

Hold your e-mail. The Blog isn't about to go Michael Moore on you, and I'm not saying Delgado's views on the war should be applauded (or derided). But in an era when image-conscious athletes are loathe to express opinions on anything, it's nice to see a player speak up even if it means getting ripped by a few columnists and hearing a few boos, as he did at the Stadium on Thursday. This isn't the first time Delgado has taken a political stand. He was an outspoken opponent of the weapons testing the Navy conducted near his boyhood home in Vieques, Puerto Rico, for decades and has donated huge sums of money to help rebuild the area. Good for him.

Until next time. ...

Sports Illustrated staff writer Stephen Cannella covers the NHL for the magazine and contributes frequently to SI.com.