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The Case of the Curse of The Cramps

By Donald G. Evans

2021897-1522679-thumbnail.jpg2021897-1522674-thumbnail.jpgIn our continuing effort to isolate the problem that has prevented the Chicago Cubs from winning the World Series since 1908, we will today examine a case that involves caffeine, low potassium levels, dehydration and possibly excessive emailing.

Cubs ace starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano pitched 6 2/3 innings of shutout baseball Monday, April 1, 2008, but left the scoreless game when he experienced cramping in his right hand. It has been a recurring problem for Zambrano, who was told to maintain high fluid levels after similar problems last season on July 29, August 3, and September 23. (There may have been other occurrences; unfortunately cramp logs were not kept pre-’07). Then, it was consensus in the sports medical community that dehydration was the cause. In light of the recent problem, which came despite the fact that Zambrano drank 12-16 ounces of Gatorade between innings, we must admit the diagnosis could have been faulty.

A complete medical workup—labeled Big Z--has naturally been done. Lab reports have been shipped to scientists at the Gatorade Institute. I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t know Gatorade had an Institute. I didn’t know lemonade for athletes was a science. Well, they do, and it is. You have to look at the Gatorade issue from every angle. To do so, we’ve gone straight to Gatorade.com’s Frequently Asked Questions section. One of them, in the Flavors And Ingredients section, is, “What is the osmoiality of Gatorade?” which begs the question, “What would a Seldom Asked Question look like?”

We move on.

Does the artificial coloring in Gatorade have anything to do with anything? Gatorade.com assures us NO. “The colors of Gatorade not only look good but also help in flavor perception enabling you to tell different flavors apart.” Flavor perception: very important.

Is Gatorade better than water? “To learn why water does not put back everything that is lost through sweat, visit the Science of Hydration section of this Web site.” We’re going to assume here that Gatorade tops water.

Does taste have anything to do with it? Again, Gatorade assures us that, if anything, the taste would be a benefit. “Gatorade is formulated to taste best during physical activity because it contains electrolytes and the right flavor profile to drive the thirst mechanism.” Flavor profile: I like the way that’s put, and it seems to me satisfactory.

So assuming Zambrano’s fluid levels were proper, why, then, did the big guy go down again in the season opener? Surely, in 132 years of professional baseball there must have been enough cramping to leave a proper paper trail. Or is this affliction modern, the result of radical changes in our society that possibly implicates the George Foreman Grill, disposable cameras, and American Idol, among others.

We must look to precedent, and for this we dust off files from the 1918 World Series, in which the Cubs lost 4 games to 2 to the Boston Red Sox. For the Cubs, Hippo Vaughn pitched three complete games and Lefty Tyler went 23 of a possible 25 innings in his three starts. For the Red Sox, Babe Ruth pitched 17 out of 18 innings in his two starts, Carl Mays pitched two complete games, Joe Bush threw two complete games and an inning of relief for a save, and Sam Jones pitched all nine innings in his only start.

Cramping, it would seem, was not an issue. There were no gigantic meetings on the mound, with shortstops and third basemen and pitching coaches and catchers asking, “How do you feel?” and “Where does it hurt?” as wounded hurlers vigorously shook hands up and down, rubbed sore spots, and yelped, “Ow, ow, ow!” Lengthy discussions of hydration cannot be found in the historical records, nor can pitch counts.

The medical evidence that survives is inconclusive. Gatorade was not invented (if invented is the right word—developed? Thought up?) until 1965, so what were these workhorses drinking? How on God’s Green Earth did they avoid cramps and muscle strains and all manner of physical mayhem without fully grasping the Science of Hydration or even estimating the osmoiality of what they were drinking” Did they have total disregard for their own flavor perception, and their beverage’s flavor profile? Cavalier, these jocks.

In the case of Ruth, we know that his liquid diet consisted mostly of beer and sometimes gin. Between innings? We don’t know. While as medical scientists we could not in good conscience say this helped, we’ll have to agree it didn’t hurt. What about Hippo Vaughn, Lefty Tyler, and Joe Bush, whose regiment between starts apparently included pitching? What were in their flasks?

Not caffeine is what we’re thinking. Zambrano apparently is a big coffee drinker, especially before games. The Cubs medical community, including manager Lou Pinella, now believes this is a contributing factor.

In addition to his cramps, Zambrano has also earned a reputation as being a little tightly wound. He spears line drives with his bare hand, breaks baseball bats over his knees, and fumes at umpires. He sent battery mate Michael Barrett to the hospital with a dugout roundhouse. No doubt caffeine is not helping. The prescription—Take It Down A Notch.

But is caffeine always a bad thing? Take the case of Aramis Ramirez, who on Opening Day 2008 remained stationary as two pops landed in foul territory near his third base station and another was caught in a lunge by Zambrano (pre-cramping) on the Cubs side of the mound before he toppled over a diving Derek Lee, who had come a much longer distance from first base. Ramirez has, in the past, also been guilty of not running out ground balls or routine fly balls that were misplayed for hits, and came from the Pittsburgh Pirates with a reputation as being an indifferent fielder. Could it be that for a sleepy Ramirez—and without further tests this is pure supposition—Red Bull or Mountain Dew might be tonic rather than poison? Lab technicians are on alert.

There is a Sucking It Up factor, hard to quantify, that comes into play. While there are some cases in which The SIU factor is obvious—Curt Schilling’s bloody socks, Kurt Gibson’s gimpy home run trot—in general there is much supposition here.

Cramps hurt; I can tell you that. Anecdotal evidence includes the time I woke up in the middle of the night with my calf in knots. I went, “Ouch, ouch, SHIT!” before hopping out of bed, dancing around like I was on fire, and repeating, “SHIT!” I rubbed the affected area. I groaned. Then I went back to sleep.

Did Zambrano even try yelling, “Ouch!” “Shit!” or any of the other proven effective epitaphs? Is the phrase, “Shake It Off!” too unsophisticated or obsolete to apply here? Is it possible Big Z rates low on the SIU scale, especially compared to the Hippo Vaughns and Lefty Tylers of yore? Should we at least see what results he gets from beer and gin?

Also, doctors and Lou Pinella agree low potassium is at play. Swap a banana for a triple caramel macchiato and we’re well on our way to a remedy. But what to make of this nagging—related?—hand problem of the past, dating back four years and likened, by then-manager Dusty Baker, to carpel tunnel, in which Zambrano admitted he spent too much time—four hours daily—emailing his brother. If these two hand injuries are indeed unrelated, could we chalk it up to a trick hand? Or something far worse?

The medical community remains largely baffled. There are factors underlying the factors that inform the other factors that add up to a problem so perplex even Gatorade scientists are stumped. Even Lou Pinella. Even Dusty Baker. Finding an answer could be the difference between a championship and a 100-year anniversary. We’re working on it.

Meanwhile, is to too far-fetched to suggest that yet another curse in a long-line of curses has descended on this franchise? Maybe curse isn’t even right. It could be a hex. It could be a curse and a hex. It could be a curse and a hex and triple caramel macchiatos. The curse and the hex could be in the triple caramel macchiatos. Private investigators, on all-night stakeouts of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, have joined our sports medical scientists in a tireless crusade to solve this riddle.

Any information that could help us solve this case should be channeled directly through Lou or Dusty. DO NOT email tips to Big Z.

Donald G. Evans, author of Wrigleyville sports gambling novel Good Money After Bad, is the Lovable Losers emcee. His stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Pinyon Review, The Journal and Narrative Magazine, among others.

Posted on Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 04:36PM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in , | Comments2 Comments | References4 References

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