Everything could have been different if only, one spring day six years ago, the New York Yankees had just used the term "lower back" instead of "buttocks."
After all, a lower back injury is something a baseball player might easily miss time for, while attracting relatively little comment. But in a spring training game in 2006, Carl Pavano fell, and the Yankees announced that he would sit out a while with "bruised buttocks." In fact, as it turned out, Pavano would miss the whole season with a cascade of inuries that left both fans and the team puzzled and angry.
Pavano, once a fine and promising pitcher, turned into a laughingstock through years' worth of bizarre injuries and terrible luck, right up until he had a "freak accident" shoveling snow in January 2013 and lacerated his spleen. This injury, too, sounded pretty funny… until it turned out that Pavano had almost died:
"By the time he finally had surgery to remove the spleen, on Jan. 19, doctors first had to remove 6 1/2 liters of blood from his chest cavity.
By Saturday night, Pavano's blood count had dropped dangerously low, and one of his lungs collapsed, he said. Alissa called her doctor in Florida, seeking another opinion, and he urged them to find a trauma center.
Doctors there gave Pavano a blood transfusion and performed splenic embolization, blocking the blood supply to his spleen."
Oh. So, in fact, not funny.
Pavano, now 38, announced his retirement on Wednesday, after trying and failing to make it back from the spleen injury and resulting complications. And looking back from here, his story seems somewhat less eye-roll-inducing than it used to.
I've laughed at a lot of Carl Pavano jokes in my day, and told plenty, too.
This was made easier than it might have been because Pavano was widely unpopular with the Yankees, who signed him before the 2005 season. By the end of 2006, the locker room generally considered him to have a bad attitude and a swelled ego. His teammates openly questioned his work ethic and desire to play -- an uncommon thing in that buttoned-down clubhouse -- and that, along with the sheer unlikeliness of his misfortune, gave observers permission to scorn his long periods of rehabbing weird injuries. They really were, in some sense, darkly hilarious, piled on one after the other; Pavano was the Wile E. Coyote of pitchers. The New York Post shrewdly and cruelly dubbed him "American Idle," and the phrase stuck; to this day it's listed as his baseball-reference.com nickname.
In that lost 2006 season, after one odd setback after another, Pavano eventually returned to the team in August -- only to reluctantly reveal that he was attempting to pitch with broken ribs, having crashed his Porsche into a truck (while out with his reality star girlfriend) two weeks earlier, an incident he hadn't informed the team of. His thoroughly fed up teammates taped the back page tabloid headline "Crash Test Dummy" to his locker. This was, undoubtedly, a dumbass way to get injured -- but his attempts to keep it quiet and pitch through it, while undoubtedly unwise, were at least indicative of a man embarrassed by his inability to pitch and determined to try to make it work. No one else saw it that way. And regardless of his motivation, just two starts into the 2007 season -- one of which coming as a shockingly unexpected choice to start on Opening Day -- Pavano hurt his elbow and eventually required Tommy John surgery.
In his four years with New York, he made $39.95 million for pitching not especially well in 26 games.
I don't know if Pavano worked as hard as possible to get back on the mound during his Yankee years -- it's possible that he didn't, and certainly that seemed to be the Yankees' impression. But I can say I've rarely encountered an elite professional athlete who'd prefer to be rehabbing on a dinky Florida field instead of playing in the majors, let alone one who preferred to do that while becoming the laughingstock of New York City.
Pavano had an interesting career even before his time on the disabled list in New York. He was drafted by the Red Sox in 1994, and if he wasn't known so much for his injuries, he might be instead known as The Man Who Was Traded For Pedro Martinez. That was before the 1998 season, and after a few uneven years with the Montreal Expos, he was traded with Graeme Lloyd, Mike Mordecai and Justin Wayne to the Florida Marlins for Cliff Floyd, Wilton Guerrero, Claudio Vargas and cash. He pitched well in Florida, and was a key part of the Marlins' 2003 World Series win over the Yankees. As was so often the case, New York owner George Steinbrenner coveted those players who had beaten his team, so when Pavano became a free agent, the Yankees courted him aggressively, beating out multiple other teams to sign him.
After his disastrous time in New York, Pavano signed with the Indians in 2009 for one year and $1.5 million, in stark contrast to the nearly $40 million deal he was coming off. During his lone season in Cleveland, he was traded without fanfare to the Twins for a player to be named later, who ended up being Yohan Pino, at the time a 25-year-old minor league pitcher, now a 30-year-old minor league pitcher.
Pavano redeemed himself somewhat in Minnesota, where he re-signed several times. After the trade in 2009, he pitched respectably, and in 2010 he pitched not only well but durably, throwing 221 innings and having his best season since Florida. He was equally durable if a bit less impressive on the mound in 2011, keeping his head down, growing a mustache and avoiding tabloid headlines. In 2012, however, his shoulder landed him on the DL again, and his snow-shoveling accident took him out of action the following offseason.
Pavano's name will always be synonymous, particularly in New York, with unending injury. But while many will probably remember him as a man who took $40 million and was content to earn it with dawdling rehab stints, he may really be a different kind of cautionary tale. As with the snow shoveling accident, what seems silly can be alarmingly dark.
You never know what's happening in another person's body, and Pavano's has been through more than most.