SPORTS DOCTOR- Broke down: Put washed up pros out to pasture

Even if you didn't watch the Kentucky Derby May 3, doubtlessly you know that a filly was put down at the end of the race. Eight Belles, the second-place finisher, broke both front ankles during the cool-down after the one and a quarter mile race. Jockey Gabriel Saez has said he never noticed anything was wrong.

I don't know when Eight Belles broke her ankles, and Saez may have done nothing wrong, but the fact remains the filly had to be euthanized immediately. When a prize filly is injured, she's put down. When a prize stallion is injured, he's often kept alive for stud.

As horrific as it is, the decision to euthanize a horse is pretty clear-cut. Not so in other sports.

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not advocating the use Pentotbarbitol for athletes who don't cut the mustard. But when a prize athlete can't perform anymore, when should he or she be put out to pasture?

I think that a 70-plus losing streak would be enough to put someone out to stud, but Hendrick Motor Sports doesn't agree. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may look good in his Wranglers, but he's gone two years without a win. Even Martin Truex Jr. won at Dover last year, and I've never even heard of him.

Junior has a five-year contract with Hendrick. At his current rate of return, even with his sporadic improvements, Junior will chalk up 350 more losses for his team. Ouch.

Over on the West Coast, Barry Zito sits twiddling his thumbs in the San Francisco Giants' bullpen. An 0-6 record and 7.53 ERA landed him there 16 months after he signed a seven-year, $126-million contract. After Zito gave up eight runs in three innings to the Reds, Giants' manager Bruce Bochy made the majors' highest-paid starter the highest-paid reliever.

In my own living room, I watch Alfonso Soriano take the Cubs' early success and turn it to mincemeat. The 15 days Soriano spent on the DL were the best the Cubs have seen since signing him for eight years at $136 million. Now he's back leading off with his .230 on-base percentage and abysmal .175 average. 

Somebody needs to round this herd into the corral.

Why promising athletes become crushing failures is a mystery. Managers, owners, and coaches patly explain away the phenomenon by dissecting pressures, slumps, momentum, and vegan diets. The more intense and lengthened the failure, the more likely an athlete is to get a pass.

Why can't these managers, owners, and coaches recognize two broken ankles when they see them?

Mike Riley can read an X-ray. As coach of the San Diego Chargers in 2000, Riley didn't waste any time benching the very expensive, very highly touted quarterback Ryan Leaf. It took only nine games and 13 interceptions for Riley to pull the plug on Leaf, $43.5 million contract or not.

Sports are an economic proposition to be sure: promise weighed against performance, investment balanced against loss. Many moons ago, Junior won four straight races at Talladega. Zito won the Cy Young in 2002. In 2006, Soriano hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases.

Nice résumés, but what have they done lately? After leading into the stretch, they've pulled up lame, but the jockeys keep whipping them, hoping for a flash of former brilliance.

I'm not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and there are times when a slump is just a slump and not an implosion. The trick is knowing the difference. A slump doesn't last two years– not in racing, baseball, or anything else. 

Luckily for them, most prize athletes are men, so even when they can't compete they retain their value. No one would put Derby winner Big Brown to sleep, even if he stepped in a gopher hole. He'd be pampered and primped, with hundreds of fillies earning him $500,000 a pop.

Not a bad life, being put out to stud. A fine reward for unfulfilled promise. I doubt Barry Zito would have many complaints.