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Brandon Veale column: Have we overtuned the 21st century athlete?

Byron Buxton gets a lot of days off. But so do you and nobody asks you to hit a double on a 95-mph fastball.

Brandon Veale
Brandon Veale
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The sun is shining on green grass across Minnesota.

The Minnesota Twins entered an off-day with a solid 32-24 record and are the only team in their division with a winning record. The American League Central has turned into an even bigger disaster than originally predicted and the Twins hold a 4 1/2 game lead.

This, of course, has not satisfied the Minnesota sports fan, agitata spectator septemtrionalis, who complains that the team's best athlete, Byron Buxton, gets too many days off. This is particularly rich from folks who jealously guard their weekends at the cottage and don't have a laundry list of pre-existing conditions, only some of which are derived from running into walls at a full sprint.

Byron Buxton could probably beat me in every single Olympic sport, except for maybe curling and even then the jury is out, so I come not to pass judgment on him or anyone but to call attention to a pattern. There do seem to be a lot of injuries these days.

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This column was not prompted by the fact that, at present, the Detroit Tigers have six starting pitchers on the injured list, but that didn't help.

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Many injuries throughout baseball have been blamed on the fact that Spring Training was much shorter than usual due to commissioner Rob Manfred's labor war of choice. There have been more doubleheaders and some weird travel, and that doesn't help, either.

We're in an age where a 94-mph fastball is league average. Even throwing a baseball overhand at 74 mph is a kinesiologically unnatural act, so we find ourselves watching a hundred little miracles every game and then act shocked when these mound magicians break down. When four weeks of preparation instead of six or eight is the difference between normal wear and tear and an injured list that looks like a downtown hospital emergency room, maybe it's the process and not the product that is at fault.

And yes, though standing in the outfield is not the most taxing of athletic pursuits, the stops and starts of chasing a ball in the gap or stretching a double to a triple add up, if for no other reason than we ask men to do this 162 times a year.

"Load management" has become a loaded term in the NBA, as the paying customer bemoans a night of understudies and the NBA fines teams who jeopardize the quality of national TV broadcasts by sitting starters.

But NBA basketball is quite a load to manage. Seven-footers beating and banging on each other for two hours, hopping on a plane and then beating and banging on other titans for two hours, sometimes the same night. Just this season, the Timberwolves played back-to-backs in Charlotte and Philadelphia; in New York and Atlanta; and in San Francisco and Phoenix.

And it's a wonder anyone survives a season in the NFL. The average offensive lineman now weighs in at 315 pounds, so large that many throw 60 or 70 pounds overboard as soon as their playing careers end. This year's 13th overall pick in the NFL Draft, defensive lineman Jordan Davis, is 6-foot-6 3/8, weighs 341 pounds and can run 40 yards in 4.78 seconds. An NFL linebacker might be marginally lighter but noticeably faster. Every single play is a car crash Talladega Superspeedway would envy.

And the NFL decided to add a 17th game to give the TV networks a little more content.

When you think about it, it's a small wonder anyone survives 21st century professional sports with their bodies intact.

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Usain Bolt is generally acknowledged as a revolutionary figure, yet over the course of his entire career, he lowered the world record in the 100-meter dash from 9.762 seconds to 9.572 seconds (or .19 seconds). And since he ran that 9.572 at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, just four men have even run under 9.8.

The margin between great and good and between good and unemployed has narrowed to infinitesimal levels, and to gain that edge, we see athletes using legal and illegal means to put on or take off just a little more weight, or add a couple miles an hour to that fastball or that extra step to beat out the throw on an infield hit.

Maybe we are running into two ceilings before our very eyes in both performance and durability, and that's before we talk about the man or woman inside that muscular machine. I fear that the demands we make of athletes now are vastly different than even what we were asking of them a generation ago.

Are we running into a third boundary, that of ethics? Have we over-tuned the 21st century athlete beyond what is healthy for the game and for the human being playing it?

I'm not a kinesiologist, so don't turn to me for an easy answer to this question, but take a moment and consider the next time Byron Buxton steps up to bat, or more specifically, when he doesn't.

Brandon Veale is the sports editor of the News Tribune. He can be reached at bveale@duluthnews.com.

Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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