Injuries? What injuries? It's the postseason

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Ninety minutes before the game, and Ray Lankford is already locked in.

He is sitting in the dugout with an expression that says singleness of purpose. His eyes are narrow. His jaw is set. He is about as approachable as a cactus.

''This is my time,'' the St. Louis center fielder tells a reporter. ''I need to get focused. I'll do all the interviews you want after the game.''

The postseason is upon us, and baseball is all business. There is little banter around the batting cage. There is none of the fraternal frivolity you see in mid-summer. Throats are dry. Tension is high. Injuries are irrelevant.

Lankford was in the Cardinals lineup for Wednesday's National League Championship Series opener, 12 days after tearing the rotator cuff in his left shoulder. Gary Gaetti was at third base four days after spraining his right ankle in San Diego.

''Time is probably what it needs,'' Gaetti said. ''But time is something we don't have a lot of.''

Might be now or never

A ballplayer sucks it up in October because he can never be sure if he will get another shot at it. Lankford will be 30 years old next summer. Gaetti is 38. They will have time for their pain soon enough.

Lankford missed the first two games of the Division Series with San Diego, and he was still on the bench midway through the Cardinals' clincher. This was about as much of a break as he could bear.

''I was just sitting there thinking, 'Dang, this is our first time in the playoffs with this group of players and if we win, I didn't even do anything to help us,' '' Lankford had said, before entering his pregame shell.

He played. He persevered. He produced.

Adrenaline is an amazing thing. Kirk Gibson limps to the plate, useless except for his swing, and hits the home run that turns the 1988 World Series. Turns out he was more the rule than the exception.

Atlanta's Greg Maddux has been pitching masterfully on a strained hamstring. Cardinals right fielder Brian Jordan aches all over, but hits like the picture of health. The former Atlanta Falcons safety still plays as if he were wearing shoulder pads - recklessly.

''The way he played, he didn't have any fear in his body,'' Jerry Glanville told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ''In football, those are the guys you love, but they get busted up.''

Baseball players are not as famous for toughing it out, but part of this is the culture. While the National Football League requires teams to report their bumps and bruises on a weekly basis as a safeguard against gambling influences, major-league baseball regards injuries as state secrets. Until a guy goes on the disabled list, his injury is often treated as a state secret.

Some of this is macho, and some is strategy. No manager wants to advertise that an outfielder's shoulder is troubling him, for it encourages the other teams to test his throwing arm. Similarly, a base stealer's sore hamstring can have a considerable bearing on the pitch selection to the hitter behind him. In a close game, a small informational edge can make the difference between a high-five and a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.

Do we believe him?

Whatever discomfort Ray Lankford was feeling Wednesday, the Cardinals were determined to minimize it. No use offering Atlanta any clues about how to pitch to him, or when to take the extra base.

''He's ready,'' said St. Louis manager Tony La Russa. ''He's all excited about his first postseason start. He's got such a great arm that even when he says he's not at 100 percent, he's still an above average arm.''

What about his bat?

''Watching him in batting practice yesterday, he was just thundering the ball,'' La Russa said.

Not to question La Russa's candor, but managers can not be trusted this time of year. With so much at stake, they can be counted on to say only what best serves their purpose. It is October. Injuries are irrelevant.

Published Oct. 10, 1996.