Ballplayers get asked all the time what they believe is the hardest part of our game. There are many challenges to it. Of course the hardest one is hitting a slider when you think a 90+ mph cheese ball is coming at you (or vice versa), or getting a good read on a high hopping groundball with a fast runner at the plate, the list goes on. But one of the hardest things that many people who follow baseball do not think about is trying to stay healthy for an entire season. Whether it’s a 56 game college season, a 60 game minor league short-season, a 140 game minor league full-season, or a big league 162 game season, being on the field for a majority of those games is one of the biggest challenges ballplayers face. Take that a step further, it’s knowing your body and knowing when you can, and when you cannot, play in the game that day (or in my mind tricking the trainers into letting you play). How do you think Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive Major League games (more than 16 seasons)? He just got lucky and was never hurt right… NO! That man had bruises, strains, sprains, illnesses, etc. all during that span, he just played through it, because that’s what ballplayers do.
Here’s the catch; there are injuries you just cannot play through, like torn ligaments, back problems, broken bones, etc. and I have been there. My junior season at UConn, with expectations through the roof and the most important season of my life so far as a Captain, I broke my left hand during live at-bats on a Saturday, six days before the season started. I was devastated as baseball had been taken away from me. My true love. Everything that I had been working towards since we were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament in Gainesville my sophomore year, after a surgery to repair that same left hand, after hours of work in the cages, on the turf and in the weight room, it felt like my future I had worked tirelessly to put before me was slipping through my fingers.
“5th metacarpal breaks usually take 6-8 weeks to heal properly,” said the Doctor about an hour after I had been hit by the pitch.
“Yeah well we have a game on Friday in Port St. Lucie, so what do I have to do Doc?” Was my natural response. Eventually after further evaluation and realizing the break was worse than they originally thought, I had to get my metacarpal reset and was told I would be out for the first five weeks of the season.
These times really test a ballplayer. You have to be tough for your teammates and make sure you’re getting your rehab work in everyday. But being the Captain my junior year and being on the sideline the week before the season was about to start was too much. I was sick to my stomach. It was a phone call with my parents after the first game of the season that comes to mind, when I hatched the plan while pretty emotional.
“I’m losing my mind, there’s no way I’m sitting out for that long,” I told my parents.
“Willy, you have to do what is best for your future health, to play the second half of the season, and for the draft,” my parents were saying.
“When I start giving a rat’s ass about the draft is when everything goes down the drain. I need to get back on the field as soon as possible for my sanity. I’m going to play in three weeks.” The debate continued for a while, but getting into an argument with me about not playing baseball is (in the famous words of Coach Penders) like getting into a pissing contest with a skunk. I explained how I could not live without being on a field, next to my guys, belly flopping on the dirt. I was never concerned with the draft while having success my first two UConn seasons and while on the Cape, why should that change now? I was quite literally losing my mind.
After the first two weekends went by slowly, I got my cast off the Thursday morning before we flew down to Stetson for the final series that I had planned to miss (although the Doc said I would miss two more after that). I was shooting to play again on March 10th against UC Davis, 3 ½ weeks after I broke my hand, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get that idea past our trainer and the Doc.
We got back early Monday morning March 6th and I went to the training room that Monday afternoon. Our trainer said the Doc still had me on track to get back March 25th, but I could start swinging off a tee if it felt comfortable. So, naturally, I fired up the pitching machine and took probably 10 rounds of batting practice. It felt… OK physically, but I was happy as a clam let me tell you. I returned to the training room on Tuesday and hesitantly told our trainer what I did, and that I planned on playing that Friday. He contacted the Doc immediately after that and told him what schedule I had prescribed for myself, and we never heard from the Doc again (not sure why). I was pretty much on my own and had to convince Coach Penders I was healthy to play. After he and the coaching staff told me repeatedly I was insane and borderline out of control (music to my ears) and our trainer fitted me with a plastic guard for the outside of my hand to wear at all times, I indeed started my first game of the season 3 ½ weeks after I broke my metacarpal against UC Davis. It hurt, A LOT, and that didn’t go away for a while, the guard made my hand bleed, my glove squeezed the metacarpal when it closed in the field, and I did struggle somewhat because of that. In reality, I would do a lot more to get back on the field with my brothers, no question.
There are less drastic instances that test a ballplayer’s health day-to-day. Just yesterday I faced Alex Cobb in a simulated game as he had his last tune-up outing before he goes up to the Baltimore roster. He struck me out my first at bat, so my game plan the second at bat was to jump a fastball early and stay away from a two-strike count with his nasty repertoire. Sure enough, he threw his 60-million-dollar change-up and I hit a laser directly into the inside of my left ankle. It’s not the first time I have done that and it won’t be the last. (Add swollen shin picture if you can find it) A swollen ankle cannot slow a ballplayer down because this is going to happen all the time, and no I will not put on the eyewash shin guard or elbow guard people! (That’s what we call chrome)
Another time comes to mind when we played at Boston College midway through my sophomore season and during batting practice I was taking groundballs from Coach Penders. Boston College’s old field wasn’t exactly a putting green, and there was a nice lip on the edge of the third base grass/dirt area. I went for a backhand and it hopped up at the last second, went off the heel of my glove, and smoked me in the nose. I knew it caught me pretty square but I wanted to keep going and get more reps. I look up to get another grounder and Coach was halfway towards third base looking pretty concerned and I didn’t understand why. What I thought was just a runny nose from the cold day turned out to be a gushing bloody nose and probably an undiagnosed broken nose.
Our trainer put two cotton balls in my nose to temporarily stop the bleeding after I had taken off my blood stained sweatshirt. She then asked me if I still wanted to play in the game that day.
“Does a one legged duck swim in circles?,” I replied. Despite having to get new cotton balls put into my nose every three innings because of the bleeding lasting throughout the game, I played fine and we won the game up there in Boston.
No, the point of this post was not to show that I’m some kind of tough guy, because I’m not, ask my mom (she’s the tough one). She’ll tell you about my Dad and me screaming like little girls when we see snakes or flying bats near us outside at night in the summer. The point is to show what some ballplayers will go through to play as many games as possible, not because we feel pressure on us to produce or fulfill expectations, but because we need the game to keep us sane. We don’t really know anything else besides our game, and one day our highly competitive days will brush by us, like strangers in a crowd.* Sure, I have a back up plan, and most likely would not have one without the opportunity baseball presented to study at the UConn Journalism School, but I will always play the game. I plan to become an adult league legend when I finish my professional career. Baseball is my meditation. Baseball is my sanctuary.