- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Sprained ankles we’re used to. Concussions and torn ligaments, too. Broken ribs, cracked cheekbones, dislocated fingers, stress fractures — all part of the job of being An Ath-a-lete.

Then there’s the sneeze. Nothing brings an athlete to his knees quite like a sneeze … as Sammy Sosa reminded us Sunday.

The Cubs slugger was chatting with reporters before a game against the Padres when he went “achoo” — not once but twice. He hunched over in pain as his back muscles spasmed, and soon enough manager Dusty Baker was erasing him from the batting order and putting first baseman Todd Hollandsworth in right field instead. Neither stimulation treatment nor icing nor stretching succeeded in bringing Sammy around.

And so a man who has swatted 549 career homers, including dingers the previous two days, was knocked out of the lineup by this most ordinary of human acts. Even after spending the afternoon in the trainer’s room, he still had to grab hold of his locker to get in and out of his chair while dressing.

“It would have been better if I hit off the wall or we had a fight with somebody,” he joked, “but what can you do? Some little thing you never expected to happen happened. Whenever I feel 100 percent, I’ll be back. All you can do is sit back, relax and wait.”

He might not have been able to sit back and relax much on the plane ride home, though. That, trainer Dave Groeschner predicted, “is going to be tough. There might be soreness from that.”

All because Sammy Sosa sneezed.

Freddy Garcia, the pitcher, really hasn’t been the same since sneezing as the Mariners’ jet was landing in Texas two years ago. The sneeze ruptured one of his eardrums (and on the return flight to Seattle, he ruptured the other eardrum). It wasn’t until this past winter that he had surgery to repair the damage.

“You can’t do any physical activity or fly for three weeks,” trainer Rick Griffin explained, “so there’s no way you can get it done during the season.”

Before the sneeze, Garcia was 59-27 lifetime.

Since the sneeze, he’s 14-16.

The numbers don’t lie. We’re talking about a career-altering sneeze here.

(Unless, of course, Freddy’s just in a slump.)

Speaking of life-changing sneezes, do you remember when a journeyman named Bob Burns led the Kemper Open after three rounds a few years back? Well, Burns has a sneeze story of his own. One day in 1995 he was lying in bed watching TV — with his head propped up on a pillow against the headboard — and sneezed. The result? A rib popped out of his spine.

Only after a lengthy rehab was he able to contort his body so he could swing a golf club. Two years later, he couldn’t even hack it in the minor leagues and was basically playing for his supper in off-the-agate-page events in California. But he stuck with it, put his game back together and returned to the PGA Tour in ‘99. And two years ago he was rewarded with his first victory — in the Disney Golf Classic over Chris DiMarco and some fellow named Tiger Woods.

There’s a lesson there for all of us: Just because you sneeze doesn’t mean it has to ruin your life. Bob Burns is proof of that.

Still, sneezing has had a profound effect on sports history — much more than, say, hiccuping or burping. I refer you to the 1969 PGA Club Professional Championship in Scottsdale, Ariz. In the final round, Bob Rosburg, leading by a stroke, was looking on from the 18th fairway as Jimmy Wright, his closest pursuer, stood over a 30-inch putt. As Wright brought his club forward, a woman in the gallery sneezed, causing him to flinch and sabotaging his chances of winning. With a two-shot lead, Rossie played the final hole conservatively, settled for a bogey and took the trophy.

The woman, meanwhile, was carried off by an irate mob and tied to the flagstick on the driving range. (Just kidding.)

Finally, can this really be true? Did the arena announcer for the Montreal Canadiens really sneeze during a game once and break his nose on the microphone (as one Web listing suggests)? (Sorry, couldn’t find anybody in the Canadiens’ offices yesterday who could confirm or deny, but I just had to share that with you.)

The sports world is so much more dangerous than we might imagine — with who-knows-what lurking around every corner. Once upon a time, there was a high school cross country race in Brooksville, Fla., and the winner blew by the flu-stricken second-place finisher with a mile to go.

“I should have sneezed on him,” the runny-nosed runner told the St. Petersburg Times.

It may come to that one of these days. Not just sneezing as a cause of injury, sneezing as a tactical weapon, sneezing as a kind of, um, nasal elbow.

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