Through pain, a purpose

Published September 6, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Around the ballpark, pain is entertainment. A guy takes a grounder off the cup, and players giggle behind their hats. They laugh at wince-inducing replays, and make jokes about a catcher's misshapen fingers and toes. It used to be said the severity of Jose Canseco's back condition could be diagnosed by the number of blondes he had been seen with the night before.

Maybe that sounds insensitive. And it certainly seems childish. But in a sport of fastballs to the ribs, fences that never bend, and day games that follow night games, levity is not such a bad way to cope with the pain.

Which brings us to the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field, where a pitcher has trouble lifting his right arm high enough to pull a shirt over his head. A guy who, for weeks, has been limited to throwing everything - balls, keys and caution - underhanded until he is asked to step on a mound every fifth day and face major-league hitters.

In the Twins clubhouse, no one is laughing at Brad Radke's pain.

Eventually, they had to look away.

* * *

The end is near, and it seems all wrong. Radke is caught between the choices he has made, and the circumstances thrust upon him.

Twelve years into a big-league career, the Jesuit grad decided recently to walk away. To walk away from the demands, the pain and, mostly, the travel.

He is only 33, and making $9-million this year, but Radke has said this will be his final season in the big leagues. He has a wife and two sons in Clearwater who need him more than he needs baseball.

The only problem is Radke hoped to leave on his own terms. Helping the Twins during a pennant race and throwing strikes until the very end. So for the past two months, and probably the past two seasons, he has pitched with a torn labrum in his shoulder. With a fraying rotator cuff.

Yet, somehow, Radke has won 12 games for the Twins. From June 1 to Sept. 1 he was one of the American League's top pitchers, going 8-3 with a 2.82 ERA.

And, all the while, the pain was getting more intense. Radke could barely lift his arm to wash his hair. He stopped throwing between starts. Wouldn't even toss a ball from the outfield during batting practice. His velocity dipped from 90 mph to 86 mph. Then 84. Eventually, he was reduced to 81- and 82-mph fastballs.

"It's just amazing what he's done," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "In all my years in the game, he's probably the guy I respect more than anyone. I can't say enough good things about what he's accomplished while hurting the way he has."

For weeks, Radke pitched on guile, and not much else. He would change speeds, and move the ball in/out, up/down and rarely down the middle. The muscles felt like they would tighten, and he had trouble getting his arm high enough to throw.

It got to the point where manager Ron Gardenhire could not stand to look at the mound while Radke was warming up between innings.

"I didn't want to watch, just knowing what he was going through. And there was no way to take the ball from him," Gardenhire said. "I'd say, 'Rad, I'm going to get you out of here, it looks like it's starting to bother you.' He said, 'It's been (flipping) bothering me, what are you talking about? Go sit down.'

"That's basically what you were getting from Radke."

This lasted until two weeks ago when his fastball became nonexistent, and Gardenhire could rationalize no longer.

Radke was pulled after two innings against Chicago and was later given a cortisone shot. When the pain persisted, he had an MRI exam that revealed he had been pitching with a stress fracture in his shoulder.

"It was like watching Doc Holliday," outfielder Rondell White said. "You have a pitcher with that much pain in his shoulder and still pitching the way he was? That tells you the kind of pitcher he is. It tells you the kind of person he is.

"The kind of heart he has."

The diagnosis today is not encouraging. Doctors say the stress fracture will heal only with several weeks of rest. Then it will take time to rebuild arm strength. With 26 days remaining in the regular season, there does not appear to be enough time for Radke to recover and return.

Once, he had thoughts of a last hurrah. Of a final start at Tropicana Field, which would have been Tuesday night. Of a mound, a pennant race and baseball's version of a sunset.

"In a perfect world, that's what would happen," Radke said. "But this isn't a perfect world and things like that happen. So you handle it the best you can."

For Radke, that means without complaint. Basically, without fanfare. He has 148 career victories, which puts him one away from a tie with Bert Blyleven for second place in Twins history. Should he choose to have surgery, he would most certainly have a shot at returning to Minnesota in 2008 after a year of rehab.

But Radke says that won't happen.

He will have surgery, he said, only if his quality of life is impacted. Otherwise, he has missed too much time at home to spend a year rehabbing a shoulder that might never be the same.

There is another factor that Radke is reluctant to discuss. His previous home in Largo was discovered to have high levels of toxic mold behind the walls last year, and his wife and children are still dealing with health-related issues.

He has been thousands of miles away during much of their recovery, and he says he is coming home for good next month.

Radke has no immediate plans for the future, other than seeing through the completion of a beachfront home and carpools to school.

He has not written off a return this season but says he can live with the idea that he already has thrown his last pitch.

"Baseball has been great to me. It's set me up for life and set my family up," Radke said. "I owe everything to the Twins and this game. But there are other things besides baseball. I feel like I've already missed so much time with my boys. So now, I just want to be around my family."

It comes down, I suppose, to pain.

And another year away from home would finally be too much for Brad Radke to bear.