Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Alex Rodriguez's Hip Imperils Season, Even Career

Can it really be so simple that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez may return to action in as little as six weeks after hip surgery, as the team has claimed? In a perfect world, yes, it's possible; but realistically, no, it's probably not going to be that easy.

Mindful of a dire need to sell tickets to help finance the new Yankee Stadium, the team's front office has done its best to put the best possible face on the recent bone shaving, cystic draining and arthroscopic surgical repair of the torn labrum in Rodriguez's right hip.

But the very idea that Rodriguez will take the field as soon as mid-April and no later than June is somewhat of a long shot. A more reasonable prognosis would put Rodriguez's return closer to the All-Star break, perhaps even in August or later.

Worse, it cannot entirely be ruled out that his entire season, even his career may be at stake in the extreme case, to say nothing of the long-term outlook for his health over the remainder of his life. To project anything more optimistic while ignoring this grim disclaimer would, frankly, be misleading if not altogether dishonest.

Though Rodriguez at 33 is a finely tuned professional athlete who otherwise might be a quick healer, he faces a few distinct disadvantages in the highly problematic nature of this particular recovery process.

First, repairing the labrum -- a circular formation of fibrous cartilage surrounding the hip joint -- takes much longer to heal than other types of operations because of relatively slow blood circulation in the particularly dense tissue. Though the external incision might be well on the way to healing in as little as six weeks, the labrum in all probability will take considerably longer to heal beneath the skin, though exactly how much longer is difficult to say.

As luck would have it -- bad luck -- it's his right hip rather than the left hip that's imperiled, the hip on which the right-handed Rodriguez swivels to drive pitches to left field. If his doctor is wise, he will advise plenty of caution before Rodriguez dares turn himself loose at the plate, and that will require time.

While Rodriguez may be able to run relatively soon, he will be unable to make the violent turns and pivots needed not only to hit but to play third base. Even if he were to be used as a designated hitter, it will still take time before he can risk playing without hesitation, lest he re-tear the labrum.

As if it wasn't bad enough already, a perhaps remote yet realistic possibility of post traumatic arthritis, even hip replacement remains a possibility if not over the remaining nine years of his contract then in later years. Though this outlook is essentially pessimistic, Rodriguez should embrace it so that if it turns out to be correct he will be prepared, and if it turns out to be wrong he can be delighted.

As for the whispers of performance enhancing substances contributing to his impairment, the possibility cannot be entirely dismissed. Steroids and other such medicines have the effect of stressing joints and tendons as the result of unnatural power and exertion. One cannot help but wonder whether Rodriguez might better have sacrificed 50 extra, steroid enhanced homers to be enabled to be playing today instead of watching from the bench.