If you run through the daily baseball headlines, it’s staggering how many are about tendonitis and rehab starts in Pawtucket or Des Moines. Nearly every top pitching prospect is described in terms like, “Could be the next Cliff Lee, assuming his arm stays intact.” No matter which team you follow, I’m sure you can name at least a handful of pitchers who were promising but habitually missed big chunks of seasons, only able to put together four or five starts before their elbow flared up again.
Josh Beckett has never appeared fragile. He has the burly build of the sorts of pitchers who tend to last a long time: broad, tall and slightly-to-moderately pudgy. Even if his career has been something of a disappointment considering he was, in his late teens, one of the most promising prospects of his generation — come to think of it, that entire class of Marlins pitchers from the early 2000s (A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny, Ryan Dempster et al.) underwhelmed, to varying degrees — he chewed up a lot of innings in Florida and Boston and could conjure the odd virtuosic eight-inning performance on nights when his curveball moved like a balloon caught in a gust.
Improbably, Beckett broke down in 2013. A groin injury hampered him at the season’s outset — Beckett could never be accused of showing up for spring training in peak physical condition — and after a dreadful first six weeks, he went on the DL. He then began to experience a disconcerting tingling in his throwing hand that turned out to be thoracic outlet syndrome, a problem he and his nerve specialist thought might end his career. After trying to work his way through the problem, he went under the knife in July — to remove a rib, no less — and his season was over. As a general rule, a 33-year-old who has major surgery due to an ailing arm is on his way out of the league. The Dodgers weren’t completely counting on him to make the rotation this year.
Beckett, who turned 34 on May 15, threw a no-hitter on Sunday afternoon. He was slightly sheepish after the game, claiming he didn’t have no-hit stuff, but had managed to keep the Phillies hitters guessing. That comment is something worth reading into, because it seems to betray how Beckett is measuring himself at this stage of his career. He is, every time he steps on the rubber, aware that the ball doesn’t do the same things it did when he was 26. The fastball has less violence to it, the breaking balls flatten out more frequently. There was nothing wrong with his stuff on Sunday — he made some Phillies look foolish — but Beckett feels like he’s merely getting the job done, not near-effortlessly blowing through lineups. This makes him uneasy, either because it’s a harbinger of his arm going dead for good or because it was simply more fun to throw 110 pitches and feel 98 of them zip out of your hand just the way you imagined they would.
When we watch an athlete who has passed their prime, we are watching someone attempting to recover a feeling. The body moves in a familiar way — a whit more creakily, perhaps — but the result isn’t the same, and we’re disappointed. The athlete knows this better and more intimately than we do, which is how a guy who pitched a great game believes he got by more on trickery than talent.
Josh Beckett didn’t expect to be where he was on Sunday afternoon two times over. He didn’t expect his arm to fail him at 33, and, at 34, his arm having failed him, he didn’t expect to be able to excel this season, or to throw well enough to utterly bamboozle a lineup for nine innings. These are accomplishments to be proud of, but they can also be bittersweet. When you lose constant access to your gift, sporadically grasping it can remind you it’s not there most of the time.