Former major league outfielder Champ Summers dies

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Champ Summers, who played for six major league teams in an 11-year career that ended in 1984, died Thursday after a 2 1/2-year battle with kidney cancer, his wife told the AP.

Summers had a truly unusual career. After serving in Vietnam, he was signed at 25 and reached the majors for the first time at 28. He somehow stuck around and saw time in every year from 1974-78, even though he hit .205/.284/.318 with eight homers in 352 at-bats during the span.

In 1979, however, the 33-year-old Summers busted out, hitting a remarkable .291/.401/.556 with 21 homers in 306 at-bats. Almost all of that production came after he was traded from Cincinnati to Detroit and reunited with manager Sparky Anderson in May. His .957 OPS was a better mark than any of the three MVP winners (Don Baylor in the AL, Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell tied in the NL) amassed that year.

He followed it up with another nice year for the Tigers in 1980, hitting .297/.393/.504 with 17 homers in a career-high 347 at-bats. And then, as soon as it came, it was gone. Summers hit .255/.339/.358 with three homers in 165 at-bats during the strike-shortened 1981 season. The Tigers traded him to San Francisco afterwards, and he hit just five more homers in parts of three seasons.

So, even though Summers played 11 seasons, more that two-thirds of his 54 homers came between 1979 and 1980. As did more than half of his RBI and even 11 of his 15 career steals.  He hit .294 those two years and .220 the rest of the time.

Summers was 66 years old. He’s survived by his wife and stepchildren.

Cardinals encourage players not to hide injuries

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In Major League Baseball, players are routinely pressured to play through injury and pain. Sometimes it’s just a minor ache, and sometimes it’s a very serious injury. The pressure comes from everywhere: the players themselves, their peers, coaches, front offices, media, and fans. Players who develop a reputation for landing on the disabled list are described as “soft” and “fragile.” Players who battle through the pain get talked about as “gritty” and “dedicated.”

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Cardinals are trying to encourage their players to be more honest about their health. The culture surrounding this is tough to change, but manager Mike Matheny wants his players to come to him if “anything that is off.” As Goold notes, Alex Reyes and Matt Bowman revealed they were, in Bowman’s words, not “entirely forthcoming.” Carlos Martinez said he pitched tentatively because he was “scared” of re-injuring himself. Matheny also called pitcher Michael Wacha “a great liar” when talking about his arm health.

Matt Carpenter has also played through injury and takes pride in it. He’s an example of the old mentality the club is trying to pierce through. Caarpenter said, “I’m a believer in if you’re getting paid to do a job and you’re capable of doing the job — even if it’s 85 percent of your best — I feel you have the obligation to be out there. That is the mentality I’ve always used. I could have very easily, at times last year, sat on the [disabled list], but I felt like I could still go out and do my job.”

Goold points out that players approach dealing with health issues differently depending on where they’re at in their careers. A young player who just got called up has pressure to stay in the big leagues and appear in games, so he may not want to address a health issue. A player who has already secured a multi-year contract may have less pressure on him and thus may be more willing to come to the trainer’s room.

I’ve long believed that player health will be the next arena in which front offices will separate themselves from the pack. Analytics had been that battleground for a while, but with every club now having an analytics department in some capacity, front offices will have to find value in new ways. Limiting the amount of time that players miss due to injury would be a significant boost for a team and it will start with players being forthcoming about what’s bothering them rather than trying to fight through pain.