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Saturday, July 12, 2008

The end seemed so sudden

By Bryan Burwell

The end is rarely pretty. For most of his or her competitive life, an athlete's pride hinges directly on the familiar sensation of playing a game at a level most of us only dream of. From the famous professional icon to the small-time local high school hero, they seek comfort in that extraordinary athletic awareness, which makes the fall from that narrow plateau all the more abrupt and intolerable.

So here was the perfect athletic metaphor for the apparent end of Mark Mulder's major-league career. On Wednesday night in the middle of Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, the once smooth and elegant superstar descended from the pitcher's mound as a mere mortal. The Cardinal lefthander fired a perfect first-inning pitch toward home plate, striking out Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins. And just like that, he could feel that awful electric shock of pain tingle in his left shoulder. The same left arm and shoulder that once produced some of baseball's most dominant lefthanded pitching, was now an empty sleeve.

The end seemed so sudden. One moment he was throwing hard and smooth, the next moment, he was pained and defeated. This was another uncomfortable farewell to arms for the Cardinals. On Thursday morning, Mulder was placed on the disabled list, a move that probably will prove to be the final indication to the club that its two-year gamble on Mulder's injured left shoulder is done.

That was strictly the cold and impersonal business side of this story that grumbling and insensitive hard heads will harp on. They will see this only in one-dimensional terms, that Mulder's time as a Cardinal was solely a failed baseball transaction.

I prefer a different take. I saw that look on Mulder's face as he came off the mound and realized his pitching arm was lifeless again and his athletic life was probably over. No one likes to face that moment when the last fumes of their athletic talent have dissipated, and Mulder's pained expression suggested that he was coming to grips with that reality.

It hurts under any condition when athletic talent runs out, whether it's a kid getting cut in little league or an aging veteran being forced into retirement. But imagine for just one moment what Mulder must be facing. He will be 31 on Aug. 5, and his professional career is probably over.

Mulder has spent the better part of the past three seasons searching for the physical and medical magic that would help him recapture the form that made him the third-winningest lefthander in baseball from 2001 through 2006. It has been highlighted by so many hopeful ups and depressing downs. It has been a lot of trips to doctors and frustrating teases when you saw glimpses that he had recaptured that elegant pitching motion.

Yet for every one of those teases, there was the predictable disappointment of another white hot-stab of nerve endings in his shoulder. I remember the annoyance in his voice every time he had to stand in front of media as they chronicled another aborted comeback. He wasn't mad at the questions. He was aggravated by the circumstances.

So for all the stupid and irrelevant angst the chat room grumblers and call-in nitpickers claim they are experiencing, none of it measures up to what Mulder has suffered. "I just keep getting let down. I don't know really what to do," Mulder told the Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss after Wednesday's crash and burn.

I can't tell you how annoying it gets to read the narrow-minded stupidity of "fans" who claim some sort of victimization from Mulder's medical misfortune. Mulder didn't cheat anyone. He tried to come back repeatedly, but his shoulder wouldn't let him. He visited more doctors' offices than a pharmaceutical salesman. He tried to relocate that metronome pitching motion, and when he couldn't do it, he tried every sort of uncomfortable and unnatural new arm slot. He pitched when he probably had no business picking up a baseball.

He kept getting back on that mound even when he probably knew deep down inside awhile ago that he never could reclaim that extraordinary athletic awareness that used to make him so comfortable, but now only made him depressed.

The fact that he failed doesn't deserve our derision. The fact that he tried so hard does deserve our admiration.

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