GOOD MORNING, class. The question today is simple: Which of the following is the greatest mystery of all?

A) The riddle of the Sphinx.

B) Stonehenge.

C) Charlie Batch’s thumb.

The answer is C, Charlie Batch’s thumb. Not because it is as complex as the Sphinx or Stonehenge. In fact, Charlie’s thumb is pretty simple. It’s attached to his hand, like the rest of our thumbs. He can stick it out if he wants to hitchhike. He can wiggle it, bend it, he can jam it in his nose.

In fact, the only thing Charlie can’t do with his thumb is pass a football. Which is what makes it a mystery — as well as, for the Lions, very bad news, because Charlie is the best quarterback they have.

And he hasn’t played in five games.

Week after week, the Lions have been waiting for Charlie to return to the starting lineup. And week after week, his thumb can’t handle it. The drill goes like this:

Monday: Reporters ask Charlie, “Can you play this week?” Charlie says, “I hope I can play this week.” Bobby Ross says, “If Charlie can play this week, he’ll be our starter.”

Wednesday: Reporters ask Charlie, “Can you play this week?” Charlie says, “I hope I can play this week.” Bobby Ross says, “If Charlie can play this week, he’ll be our starter.”

Friday: Bobby Ross says, “I don’t think Charlie can play this week. Gus Frerotte will be our starter.”

Next Monday: Repeat above.

When is a break a break?

This week, the mystery took an interesting twist. It was announced that not only would Charlie not start this Sunday’s game against Chicago, but, by the way, his thumb was fractured.

That’s funny, because he injured it nearly six weeks ago. Wouldn’t the time to declare a fractured thumb have been when the thumb was actually broken? Isn’t announcing that fractured thumb six weeks after the injury a bit like announcing that you are pregnant as you’re changing the diaper?

“Well,” Charlie told me Monday, “they just X-rayed it this week. And it showed a fracture.”

Wait a minute. You haven’t had it X-rayed all along?

“They took one X ray at the beginning, and then they took an MRI,” Charlie said.

And no one saw your thumb was fractured?

“I guess not. Not until this X ray.”

Now. I must admit. I am no doctor. The closest I come to being a doctor is reading Us magazine in the waiting room. But I do know how to ask questions. So I looked into this whole thumb deal.

Here is what I discovered.

When Batch hurt his thumb against St. Louis on Nov. 7 — banging it on another player’s helmet as he followed through on a pass — it was X-rayed by the Lions’ doctors at the Silverdome. They saw no fracture.

Later that week, Batch was taken to a hand specialist in Detroit. A magnetic resonance imaging test was ordered, but it was done in Troy, because there’s too big a backup down at Henry Ford Hospital. When that MRI was read — and MRIs can detect fractures as well as ligament and tendon damage — the doctors saw an abnormality. But they decided it was not a new fracture, but an old injury that had been aggravated.

They told Charlie it would heal on its own. He continued to practice, trying the thumb each week. But week after week, he still had pain, and lacked complete control over the football.

At one point, he was sent to a specialist in Alabama. That specialist also felt that, because this was supposedly an old injury aggravated, time would heal it.

Then, this week, a new X ray was taken. And suddenly, everyone can see the fracture. It’s small, just a few millimeters, but it’s there.

How can a fracture show up on one X ray but not another?

“The fractured piece moves,” I was told.

Oh.

You never learn that in Us magazine.

In Gus we still trust?

Now, the big question here is, did the Lions screw up?

The answer to that is “not necessarily.” While it’s true, the fracture wasn’t spotted the first few times around — truth is, more than one person missed it
— the treatment for Batch might not have been any different. The fracture is too small to warrant a cast, a splint or a pin.

About the only difference between what was done and what could have been done? Had Batch and the Lions known for sure about the fracture, they might have agreed that Charlie do nothing for a few weeks. Let the thing heal completely, rather than test it with practices and throwing drills.

Could Batch be back by now had he done that? Perhaps. But it’s too late for such speculation. The fact is, Batch likely will have trouble the rest of the season. And the fact is that, until the Lions’ loss Sunday to Tampa Bay, the coaches were in no huge hurry to replace Frerotte. Coaches hate to jump off a winning streak.

But now the winning streak is over, and the Lions’ offense, behind Frerotte, hasn’t scored a second-half touchdown since mid-November. Never mind. He’s their guy now. Charlie’s mystery has been solved. And unfortunately, for the moment, the prognosis is thumbs-down.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Mitch will sign copies of his books 1:30-2:30 p.m. Saturday at Borders in Ann Arbor, 4-5 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble on Telegraph in Bloomfield Hills, and 7:30-8:30 p.m. Monday at Barnes & Noble in Troy.

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