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Baseball wrestles with player overuse issues

Players think it is an honor to play injured, but the long-term effects are unknown.

Oct 27,2009
At the conclusion of game seven of the Korean Series, Kia Tigers players were seen celebrating wildly. In contrast, SK’s Chae Byung-ryong was spotted in the visitor’s dugout weeping.

It is difficult to say which was more painful for Chae, the pain of loss or the pain in his elbow. The 27-year-old pitcher had appeared in five games in the postseason despite suffering from an elbow injury. Chae will undergo elbow surgery in Japan in November before returning to Korea for his mandatory military service.

However, the question remains as to whether we should applaud Chae for his courageous efforts or denounce the overuse of a talented pitcher solely for the purpose of winning.

Having sustained an injury to his right elbow in July, the pitcher was expected to be out for the remainder of the season. But Chae made his return to SK on Sept. 23 after 80 days of painful rehabilitation. He was intent on pitching in the postseason before going into the military and wanted to help his teammates win the Korean Series.

In game three of the second round of playoffs against the Doosan Bears at Jamsil Stadium in southern Seoul on Oct. 10, Chae surprised everyone. Despite suffering from damage to the ligaments in his throwing elbow, he was throwing pitches that clocked in at 144 kilometers (89 miles) per hour. The speed of his pitches was much better than when he wasn’t injured.

This prompted SK manager Kim Sung-geun to eliminate a relief pitcher from the Korean Series roster he had submitted, despite having an injury-plagued pitching staff. “I made the decision after watching Chae pitch in the playoffs,” said Kim.

Until game six of the Korean Series, Chae appeared in four games and recorded a win and a save with a 1.23 ERA, giving up two runs in 14 and two-thirds of an inning pitched. However, there were limitations to Chae’s pitching ability, considering he was relying on weakened muscles and damaged ligaments. Despite winning game four of the Korean Series on Oct. 20, he did not have command over his pitches. Chae began to suffer from back pain as well.

There are conflicting views on pitcher overuse. Players tend to think that it is an honor and a challenge to play injured. However, there is no telling what kind of long-term effects players like Chae could incur. A fully recovered Chae could return to the Wyverns roster in two years at the earliest. But that’s not the only possibility. Samsung’s Bae Young-soo and Chae Byung-yong pitched injured in the 2006 Korean Series and have not been the same pitchers since.

“Chae may have trouble returning to his previous form after surgery,” said Nam Jong-chul, a specialist who wrote his thesis on elbow repair surgery.



By Choi Min-kyu [jason@joongang.co.kr]



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