“You,” said the orthopedist, “have no cartilage in your left kneecap.”

“Oh,” I said, for this was not a surprise, and yet it was a bullet train to the face.

“You’ll need at least a partial replacement in time,” he added, “but for now, get the most mileage you can out of the surrounding bone structure.”

I thought of my mother, who at that very moment was lying in a nursing home, her right hip gone and her left hip disintegrating at its own pace. She’d just completed her seventh surgery on the right side, after the correction of the artificial hip correction didn’t take, and so her surgeon, often touted as the best one for rivers around, said: “Well, I’ll just go in and yank it out.”

There is little point in tending to the left hip, as the absence of the right has ruled out walking for the rest of her life, which, at 81 years, probably didn’t have a lot of triathlons in it anyway. But still. She’d like to have maintained the ability to shuffle down the hall to Mass every once in a while.

The X-ray on the screen in front of me was a photo of my future. Fourteen years ago was the first clean-out procedure; my sister underwent her own a couple months ago. When I started experiencing new and different pain in the post-surgical knee about five years ago, I went to the doctor, who shipped me off to the X-ray machines.

“It’s just arthritis,” the nurse reported a week later, and hung up.

Osteoarthritis happens every day, all day. To old people. I don’t like to think of myself– then 31, then 39, and now 45– as a member of that category. And yet I am, hopefully and by the grace of God, now exiting the locker room, halftime having already passed me by. I’m not alone. One of my high school contemporaries needs her own total hip replacement. My former gym activities partner just got a consultation for high cholesterol. We are who our teachers were.

But “just arthritis” enclosed my grandmother in a walker for over a decade and began manifesting itself upon my mother’s hands in her late thirties, when she attempted to twist one of those plastic flower-intensive 80’s accessories into my hair before school… and she couldn’t. The pain in her knuckles meant she could not fix her little daughter’s hair in the simplest style. My big sister had to step in. Both of us started pounding calcium supplements as early as high school.

Calcium might have helped our “surrounding bone structure,” but nothing could save the cartilage. It gave way flake by flake over decades, and then there was no more to give.

My sister completed part of her eldest son’s college orientation clinging to bannisters and taking elevators and wondering why. One night I had such excruciating pain in my leg while kneeling during Adoration that I had to stand for the rest of the Rosary, also wondering why. Now we’re both checking our insurance plans for co-pays on physical therapy.

“You need to strengthen the muscles around the knee,” said orthopedist said. “Weightlifting, swimming, and Pilates.”

I nodded. “Yes, low impact. I already do yoga.”

“Oh,” he said, appalled. “No more yoga.”

Yoga, as it happens, often involves flexion of the knee and twisting in directions unfriendly to joints with zero cartilage. I discovered this the hard way– I almost always have to discover things the hard way– when I tried a class and attempted modifications. I stood there in my stubborn German sweat and glared at my instructor as she kicked her leg back against her hand, a posture that had a place of pride in my small athletic repertoire until last week.

And that was the problem. The problem was not that I was conducting the class like a first date on the campus of strictest Title IX enforcement in America (“Can I do this?” “Are you still comfortable?” “Can I do that?” “Is this okay?” “How far should I go?”) The problem was that I’d let pride creep into my exercise. One of the reasons I attached to yoga was that the kid who could never hit, throw, or catch could… kind of do it.

And if my recent deep dives into Catholicism and its sci-fi heir, the Jedi Code, taught me anything, it is that any sort of immoderate fleshly attachment– even to my own flesh– rarely ends well.

This is tough enough for highly non-athletic me, who just flopped around on a sweaty towel a few times a week. It was exercise, but it was exercise that I enjoyed and became part of my life. When people asked about my hobbies, I’d say, “I sew very badly! And I do hot yoga!” Yet, it wasn’t my job. Baby MB wasn’t wandering through fields of gold as an 8-year-old, dreamily picturing a lifetime of assuming Chair Pose. But it was there, and now it’s gone.

When baseball players, who can reasonably assume a fairly long career as long as they aren’t throwing 80 miles an hour as seventh-graders, retain a career-ending injury, what’s that like? How do they face the rest of their lives knowing that perhaps they could have achieved more, at perhaps exactly the best possible time, had their bodies served them as they trained it to do? Poured their own blood into the process? Directed every facet of their lives towards?

I don’t even want to think about it. My identity isn’t on the field. But it is a cruelty that the window to bend our bodies to our will is a small one, and for some, perhaps it was never wide enough.

Now tell me: Who could have done more if their bodies hadn’t failed them, sometimes too soon? My vote is Griffey Jr, but I expect everyone has their own portrait of frustration.


37 Responses

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Good choice– that poor man.

  1. LDS

    I have 20+ years on you and sadly, the indignities continue to pile up. Really tarnishes the self-image. Good luck rehabbing the knee.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks πŸ™ I really need to get my priorities straight, I think!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I think a lot of Reds fans would agree with you.

  2. Moon

    I was a young boy living near Dayton in a little americana type town called Fairborn. I used to listen to the Reds on a little transistor radio back then. Jim McIntyre and Joe Nuxhall were calling the games in the year when my most dissapointing player injury occured that derailed a promising career. The player I am talking about was a young 21 year old rookie pitcher. His name was Wayne Simpson. Wayne was 13-1 through his first 14 games. The lone loss due to a bad error on a dropped pop fly ball. An easy out, but the error allowed two runs to score and pinned a loss on Simpson. His rotator cuff gave out about 100 games into the season. The Reds were 70-30 at that time (those were the days!!) and he was never the same. I wonder just what could have been if Wayne Simpson could have stayed healthy. Or if we had modern philosophy of pitch counts etc. back in those days that could have saved Wayne Simpsons arm. But for two thirds of a season back in 1970, he was unhittable and the best pitcher in the major leagues.

    • Jimbo44CN

      I remember him too! Good memories from Crosley Field.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh that is heartbreaking. A sad story, but thank you for sharing that with fans who came to baseball after this era. What could have been.

  3. Optimist

    Just look at the 1970 pitching staff. Wayne Simpson, Don Gullett, and Gary Nolan, in order of what they did accomplish. And don’t even get to the tragedy of Jim McGlothlin.

    • MK

      Jim Merritt was the 20-game winner on that team and blew out his elbow doing it.

    • RedsFanInFL

      Can you imagine if those 3 pitchers remained healthy and at their best for the entire run of the BRM? Reds probably average 105-110 wins/year and we may be looking at 5 time WS champions from 72-76

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        An EVEN LARGER Big Red Machine! πŸ™‚

  4. Bred

    There are so many. I agree about Griffey. Others are Eric Davis, Tony Conigliaro, and J.R Richard they are but a few guys whose career were cut short. Although pro athletes are not thought of by fans as being vulnerable humans, they are. Good fortune to you MBE. I’ll say a prayer to Saint Raphael the Archangel to ask him to look after you.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh thank you! Raphael is underrated! I want to learn more about him πŸ™‚

  5. Joe Shaw

    Don Mattingly and his back. Dale Murphy and his knees. Heck, Even Johnny Bench wasn’t his ownself after a surgery to remove a lesion from his lungs in ’72 and various shoulder injuries. Time is undefeated. We all lose eventually.

    Except for Nolan Ryan. He can probably still throw 90.

    Thoughts/prayers/goodmojo for you and your knees, mbe.

    • RedsFanInFL

      Agree about J Bench. Was still great but never came duplicated 1970 or 1972 season after requiring lung surgery in β€˜72

    • Jim Walker

      Yes, +1000 on Bench. 2 MVPs before age 23, and never the same player after the lung surgery. Imagine if arthroscopy had existed then (1972).

      Another guy in the same category who I haven’t seen mentioned here is Kal Daniels (MLB 1986-92). His knees were his downfall. I’ve heard many a contemporary player say the sky would have been the limit for him if his knees hadn’t given way. I don’t recall if his issues were traumatic, genetic, or a combination; but, but certainly, the knee procedures we have today would have likely kept him around at a higher level of performance.


    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thank you for the kind words. You know, I hadn’t considered Bench because he is so elite even without the injury. But you’re right– he could have been even greater if it weren’t for that.

  6. Harry Stoner

    Not surprisingly, Willie Nelson has a take on the subject of aging.

    And, of course, a useful method for dealing with those daily aches and pains, physical and otherwise.

    • Daytonnati

      You know, I’ve always wondered about your RLN handle πŸ™‚

      Football-wise and Cincinnati-related, I think of Greg Cook.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Somehow I knew where Willie was going with this! Good advice for when I’m in Colorado next.

  7. Mark Moore

    JR Richard gets my vote. Such an incredible talent force out way too soon.

    I have a fair amount of empathy for you and this story. My own 59-year-old right knee “clicks” more than a little (I still push through my walks daily and some weights 2x per week). But that pales in comparison to my wife who first encountered osteoarthritis at age 16. She’s looking at some surgery on a hand early next year to get some relief.

    Taking a knee (or knuckle) indeed … the body just wears out at some point. But the heart goes on, right?

    • Jim Walker

      Yep, some days it’s that sound like snapping match sticks for the first 50 steps or so when I get up and start to walk after I have been immobile for several minutes. πŸ˜‰

      • Mark Moore

        I have my earbuds in for the morning walk. So instead of hear the clicks (or matchsticks as you said) I more feel them. Freakish indeed.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh wow, your poor wife. She’s been battling this for longer than anyone should. But indeed, the heart does go on πŸ™‚ Hang in there with the weights and the walking!

  8. Ryan

    One has to wonder if modern Orthopedic surgery could have helped Wayne Simpson

    • Optimist

      Certainly, and less workload would have helped them all – some of the pitch count and ip totals are flabbergasting, except for the knuckleballers.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I hadn’t thought of that. Probably. It’s so frustrating to think of the careers that could have been if they’d only taken place in another era.

  9. MadMike

    Mary Beth, just curious, were you given any specific exercises for the knees? I have similar problems, not as severe but was also told I’ll need knee replacements ‘eventually’. I worked with a trainer for a while, and he had me do wall sits and lunges with weights to strengthen the quads and protect the knees. It seems to work!

    • Jim Walker

      MM> “Eventually” caught up with my wife on both knees a little more than a year ago. She is now 4 months out from the second one and doing fine; but, the immediate post surgery period was hades on both knees.

      Her issues were chronic, a mix of genes and arthritis. However after one of the surgeries, the doc asked if she had ever had a major sports or automobile wreck injury to that knee. When he told all the soft tissue stuff he had to fix prior to doing the actual replacement procedure, it sounded like the post surgery release when one oof the Reds gets his knee worked on.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        That soft tissue makes a world of difference, I found in my mom’s case. I feel like between all this stuff, my sister and I should have gone to medical school to keep up.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks for the question! He did give me a printout of some exercises but the idea of doing them until the end of time sounded a bit… much, especially since they seemed directed to people who’d had surgery. Wall sits are included, which are horrible, but as you say, effective. I’m inspired to hear they worked for you πŸ™‚

      • Mark Moore

        Wall sits … I first encountered them in college when I took a semester of fencing (great class, best I took). we worked up to somewhere in the 2-3 minute range and that’s how we started each class. No way I could do those now.

  10. MadMike

    Sorry to hear about that experience! Glad its over with.

    Human knees are really interesting constructs, if you think about them. We’ve got to be kind of unique. Being upright, the bones are stacked right on top of each other. It’s gotta be like a Tower of Jenga situation when the orthopedic surgeon works on them.