When I read that Dr. Ben Shaffer resigned from the position of Medical Director for the Nationals, my curiousity was again piqued at the nature of the Nationals training and conditioning program, and the way they manage the health of their players. I’ve long been curious about it, and back in late March I had a conversation with Mike Henderson of Nationalspride.com on this very topic. At the time, I had no idea how profoundly troubled the Nats collective health was going to be this past season, and 2008 has only made me even more curious about how a professional baseball team manages the health of their players.
Going all the way back to 2005, the only consistent thread in all four of the Nationals seasons is the tremendous number of injuries and player-days lost to the disabled list. Strains, tears, tweaks, pulls, fractures – call them what you will. But they were stunning in both their number and variety. And no doubt, they cost the Nationals games, and in more than one case, the Nats had to promote, trade or sign players that they might not have moved otherwise, simply to cover injuries with the big club.
Now I have no first-hand knowledge about the quality of the Nationals medical staff, including the quality of service provided by Dr. Shaffer. I would assume that it was at least adequate, and my guess is that it was probably world-class as sports medicine goes, if for no other reason than the Nats have had so many opportunities to seek out the best sports surgeons in the world. I don’t think the problem with the Nats had anything to do with the quality of the care they received from their medical staff. Instead, it was that they needed the care in the first place. In many ways, having the best surgeons on staff is a bit like a NASCAR team having the best body shop – you hope that you never need them, but they don’t help you win today.
If I were the owner of a Major League Baseball team – a team that cost me $450 million and certainly worth more than that now, and a big part of my success hinged on keeping the moving parts well-oiled and in factory condition, I would want a state-of-the-art shop and the best mechanics. I would want the best equipment, the best mindsÂ and a cutting-edge philosophy on how to get the most from my players, and how to keep them healthy. Medicine and conditioning science is not like classical physics – in medicine and fitness there are new discoveries and new understandings of the way the body works seemingly every month.Â Not much new has happened in classical physics since Kepler figured out the orbits of the planets.Â With the kind of investment that an owner has in his or her team, and profound impact that the health of the players have on the bottom line, you would think preventing injury and enhancing performance (legally) would be near the top of the list of organizational priorities. Is it with the Nationals? I have no idea. The anecdotal evidence says, probably not.
If I were the owner of the Nationals, this is what I would do:
- Place a clause in every player’s contract that offered a bonus for staying injury-free for a season, and for self-reporting injuries that require medical intervention, but would otherwise go undetected. For example, a player might self-report that he has pain when swinging the bat, and his report would precipitate a medical examination. Wily Mo Pena is a perfect example of this scenario, but if you remember, Jose Guillen had a similar problem, too. In Pena’s case, it might have prevented further injury, and it might also have prevented his acquisition by the Nats, had his shoulder problems been known in 2007. If a player is hurt, and his continued play either risks further injury, orÂ significantly degrades his performance, there needs to be an incentive to get the care he needs. The bonus shouldn’t be large,Â but Â big enough to get the job done. Perhaps the bonus goes to a charity, rather than directly to the player. I am open to suggestions. And this isn’t to say that the Nats have to put the player on the DL. But at least they are better informed to make the right decisions.
- Every player should have his eyes checked [Cristian Guzman] every year… In the fall, so they can have whatever corrections that need to be made with plenty of time for recovery.
- Every player should have a contractual obligation to a fitness regimen, and the proper incentives or penalties for meeting or not meeting fitness goals. Players with chronic conditions should be required to aggressively follow their progress. For heaven’s sake, they’re professional athletes (more or less)!
- The team should align itself with academic institutions that lead the fields of fitness, nutrition, conditioning, repetitive stress injuries, kinesthetics, sports psychology – any relevant field. They should donate money for research. They should hire practitioners as consultants and coaches. In short, the Nats should lead, rather than follow, the endeavor to learn and create the cutting edge philosophy of fitness and sports medicine. And by funding that research, they have first access to its practical application.
- The team should cultivate a staff of world-class sports medicine physicians. Apparently they already have done this, but it is never time to rest on your laurels. Have the best surgeons, and hope you don’t need them.
- Lastly, the Nats should take some of their new-found knowledge and offer some community outreach to schools and neighborhoods so that amateur athletes, and kids and families in general can benefit from the cutting edge of sports medicine. They could offer workshops for high school coaches, create Nats-based fitness plans for kids that mirror a player’s plan – in season, being in game shape, and in the off-season, keeping in shape and working on new things. The options are numerous, can be easily tied into marketing (and thus, income) and fulfill a mandate to serve the community.
For all I know, the Nats are already doing at least some of this. But my guess is, probably not. I think baseball is slow to accept new ideas (and I am the first to admit, there’s nothing that says this is a new idea – it is just new to me), and if this is one, then perhaps it is time to think outside the box. My guess is that there is still a lot to learn when it comes to conditioning and preventing injuries… and we’ve come a long way since “building strong bodies twelve ways”.
Injuries happen in baseball, as they do in all sports. But given the profound number of injuries the Nats have suffered, the mind begs for a connection between them. It might be conditioning, and it might not.Â It might be that the Nats have consistently pursued and assembled a team of chronically fragile players. Either way, both have a systemic solution – and one that needs to be found soon, because the fans can’t take another season with the best DL team in the league.