(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on July 14, 2010.)
As Major League Baseball and the city of Anaheim prepares itself for the annual back-pat it calls the All-Star Game, I’d like to take a moment to remember another historic event that played out on the same field that will host Tuesday’s Midsummer’s Classic, a moment that, tragically, has been all but forgotten.
In the fall of 2002, San Francisco Giants closer Robb Nen found himself staring down Troy Glaus in Game 6 of the World Series. Few at Angels Stadium knew that Nen was pitching with a torn labrum, that he had been for a majority of the season. Even he didn’t know that his rotator cuff was only a few fastballs away from a complete reconstruction. When Nen eventually gave up the go-ahead double to Troy Glaus, only two people in the stadium knew that it would be the last pitch he would ever throw.
The tragedy of that night wasn’t that his sacrifice was somehow avoidable or that the Giants ended up losing the World Series despite of it. The tragedy was that both Robb Nen and his pitching coach Dave Righetti knew that it would end this way—with as much certainty as they knew that putting Nen on the disabled list was never an option.
Nen had made the ultimate sacrifice that night in Anaheim: his arm—and by extension his life and career—for his team. This is the story of competitive zeal; its beauty and its heartbreak.
“I remember we were trying, Sabes [general manager Brian Sabean]was trying, to bring someone else in so we could give Robbie a break,” Righetti said. “I wished we could have protected him more.”
Righetti, a 16-year MLB veteran and two-time All-Star, understood the special relationship between pitching and pain better than most.
Scientifically speaking, the most violent repeated act in sports is the rotation of a pitcher’s shoulder when delivering a pitch. Each motion delivers so much stress to the joints and muscles there that even a single degree of poor mechanics can cause irreparable damage. Even with perfect mechanics, no pitcher can go an entire season without causing some level of harm to his arm and shoulder. Righetti knew this; he lived it. So when a mid-season MRI revealed Nen’s torn labrum, his coach thought twice about shutting him down completely. But he also knew how stubborn most pitchers are, knew that quitting wasn’t an option for a bonafide “Bulldog” like Nen, and decidevd to allow his closer to pitch through the pain.
But Righetti started having second thoughts. Maybe it was while watching Nen—a pitcher who once reached 102 mph in the 1997 World Series—unable to muster a ball past 88 mph. Maybe it was the day the Giants started turning the stadium radar gun off in the ninth inning to avoid alerting opponents to Nen’s drop in velocity. Maybe it was the grimace on Nen’s face every time he delivered a pitch. But by the end of the season, Giants broadcaster Jon Miller would say that Nen was going on nothing more than “sweat, blood and tears.”
But Nen kept saving games. He saved two crucial series down the stretch to give the Giants the NL wild card and finished the season with an astounding 43 saves. Imagine completing a marathon on a torn Achilles tendon. That’s how miraculous Nen’s 2002 campaign was.
He closed out the playoff series against the Atlanta Braves and Cardinals and tied a record for most saves in a single postseason. He saved two games in the World Series against the Angels. Then came that showdown with Glaus in Game 6. And that was it. 314 career saves, 10 seasons, three All-Star teams, was history. His shoulder just had nothing left to give.
In a time of war and global recession, it’s important to put athletics into a proper perspective, that they are distractions and nothing more. With that said, it would be a travesty to call Nen’s sacrifice anything but magnificent. His sacrifice was bold and selfless and tragic, a reminder that athletes can still inspire, even as the curtain falls.
His performance in Anaheim was lost on most. But it will never be forgotten by the people that were closest to it.
“Without a doubt, my biggest high in this job was watching Robbie do what he did that fall,” said Righetti. “And without a doubt, my biggest low is knowing he can’t ever do anything like it again.”
Alex Isao Herbach is a freelance writer and sales director for a Southern California toy store. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.