Walking the Career-Threatening Injury Road with a Former MLB Pitcher

Dirk Hayhurst@@TheGarfooseNational MLB ColumnistMay 23, 2014

Dave Martin/AP Images

No one tells you how ashamed you'll feel when it happens.

No one tells you how, after years of keeping pace with macho egos trying to prove they are the strongest; years of pushing through soreness and illness to make sure you're ready; and years of declaring that "defeat is not an option," that, when you do break, you will feel disgusting, weak and completely useless.

No one tells you that you'd rather be dead than injured.

The life of an athlete is more than competing. It's survival of the fittest. But what happens when you are no longer fit enough to survive?

During a workout in the 2010 offseason, I felt my shoulder pop. I was a member of the Blue Jays' 40-man roster at the time and had ended the year with a 2.78 ERA in the AL East. It was a small sample size (22.2 innings), sure, but a small sample size that took eight years for me to achieve.

Eight years of beating myself in weight rooms, eating only peanut butter sandwiches and honing skills on backwater ball fields in hopes of making my mediocre talent into something that could hang with the world's best.

By 2010, I'd finally made my dream a reality. Then, on a random winter's day, in the time it took me to press a dumbbell, my shoulder popped, and with it went the dream.

The pain was instant, but I didn't want to say anything. Not to the organization, not to my wife, not to myself. I was in denial.

Players—high-level players who've watched careers end by confessing pain—know better than to speak up in this modern, data-driven era of baseball-risk analysis.

An injury, no matter how slight, goes on your permanent record. From there it affects your ability to get a job or a call-up. Unless you are supremely talented, having a history of injury makes you a liability, and garden-variety right-handed relievers like me cannot afford to be liabilities.

H. RUMPH JR/Associated Press

I sat on the injury. I self-treated with over-the-counter drugs and painkillers I'd snuck from my parents' stash. I iced. I ran. I rubbed dirt on it. Weeks later, my shoulder still hurt like hell.

Finally, after trying to throw through the pain and finding myself on one knee, cradling my arm like it might fall off, I broke down and called the Blue Jays.

Picking up the phone to contact the head trainer put my life on the chopping block. Having been hurt during the offseason, I was subject to a particularly unfavorable set of rules. If I had gotten hurt during the season, on an active team, I'd have the full power of the players union behind me. The Jays would have to keep me on a roster, I'd get my full big league paycheck and access to the medical package that came with it. However, since I got hurt in the offseason, the Jays could simply release me.

No money. No insurance. Nothing.

The team flew me to Tampa for a checkup with the Jays' team doctor at the team's spring training facility before a decision on my future was rendered. Sitting on the examination table, head down, devastated and scared, I wanted my arm to fall off. I wanted all of the tests to show a grisly scene of destruction the doctor would look at and say, "My God, this is horrible. You must be some kind of superhero to endure this for as long as you did."

But as the doctor lifted my arm overhead and ran it through a series of tests, pulling, twisting, asking for resistance, the pain was acute and mysterious. It was hardly an action-hero war wound. It just made me feel that much weaker.

"We won't know what’s wrong for sure unless we go in there and look," they told me. "But if we cut you open, there’s no guarantee you’ll come back right. Surgery is always risky."

But to begin with, I wasn't right. I hadn't been for more than a decade. The doctors told me that, after 25 years of throwing a baseball, from childhood to my late 20s, it wasn't a question of if there was damage in my shoulder, but how much damage.

There would be fraying, tears and inflammation. Pitching is an unnatural exercise, so much so that my humerus bone had been twisted like a towel from years of torquing it during throwing. If they repaired me, it wouldn't go back to the arm I had before baseball started—it would be back to something they hoped I could tolerate.

"You know," said the Jays' team trainer, "if you were a professional writer, you could just take time off and eventually this would heal on its own. But you're not. You’re a baseball player, and so you have a small window of opportunity, and we have to fix you as fast as we can or that window will slip shut. It's your call."

Of course I opted for surgery. What choice did I have? Sit around and wait for my career to end, or roll the dice with the knife and see if I could keep it going?

Thankfully, the Jays kept me on the roster and paid for the surgery and the rehab. They let me keep my job for the remainder of the year, and the paycheck. At first I thought it was a major blessing, but that's because I had no idea how brutal rehab can be. There were days I wished they had just released me.

It wasn't the physical pain—that stuff made sense to me. I hated it, what it had done to me, but I understood that my body had broken and would hurt until healed. It was the mental side of the injury that crushed me.

I spent all those years of finding my identity in my right arm. I was addicted to the adulation, competition and success playing baseball brought. I needed to be healthy in order to feel like I mattered. I needed to be part of the team. I needed to produce, and I couldn't. I could only spend my days on a training room table, lifting some tiny weight as if it were a boulder, straining to get it over my head.

You're isolated in rehab. Most major league training facilities are nowhere near the major league stadium or the major league club. Broken players are sent far away from their teammates. The days are lonely, boring and empty. The risque humor, the jocular quips, the back-slaps and atta-boys—gone. It's just you, your trainer, a list of workouts and an empty hotel room.

Your teammates do not call to check on you. Competitive egos are not built to dispense moral support unless it leads to winning. They feel bad for you and will ask how you're feeling when you cross paths, but they have a job to do. And while they agree that it sucks to be you, they also agree that it's nice to have one less body around trying to take their job.

The days go slowly. Depression sets in. You may think that going out to watch the team play will make you feel better, make you feel more plugged in, but it's just the opposite: The closer you are to the healthy players, the more you realize how you are not. It becomes hard to watch the team play, worse still to see them succeed without you.

When the trainers see your morale dip, they'll tell you to go out, have a good time, do something you enjoy. But how can you? You are not the person you used to be. In fact, you barely know who you are anymore. Before the injury, you were the self-actualized ideal you'd set out to become years ago. Now, broken, spending your days on training room tables, dead weight on the organization’s payroll, you're the poster child of pathetic.

You can't simply disengage from what you're conditioned to be. The self-loathing starts, and even if you wanted to have a good time, you don't feel worthy.

At first, you'll try to run from feelings—most players do—far more than you'd think. Feeling sad, lost or depressed—these are not feelings players are accustomed to, nor are players in a culture that accepts those feelings. Rather than get help or speak up, they will resist the problem. They will self-medicate.

Drinking is the No. 1 pastime of injured players. Major League Baseball players have beer in every locker room. Most guys drink after every game. But alcohol becomes a full-blown escape while in rehab.

I rehabbed for three hours a day during my injury. Afterward, I'd go home to an empty apartment, bored, lonely and miserable. I'd start drinking as soon as I got there.

When my tolerance got too strong, I'd take pills too. Oxycodone from the surgery. Percocet from before the surgery. Sleeping pills—given out wantonly to help big leaguers sleep on cross-country flights—from my previous season. Then, high on a cocktail of booze and pills, I'd pass out and time-warp to my next rehab session. I just wanted to wake up on the day I was useful again and forget the rest.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

It wasn't until I was wasted and sleeping 18 to 20 hours a day that I even considered I might have a problem. When I started sobbing for no reason at the rehab complex, I knew I needed help.

When I told the training staff what I was dealing with, I was a mess. My nose was running, my face was red and I was hyperventilating. I was terrified of what I was becoming. The injury was too much for me to bear, and suicide was a concept that was getting way too comfortable in my head. Yet I was even more afraid of what would happen now that I'd let it be known I had a psychological issue.

A physical injury was damning enough, but confessing I was dealing with mental issues meant that, even if the physical side of things healed and I made a full recovery, I'd be haunted by the narrative of "questionable psychological makeup" for the rest of my career.

The Jays trainer had no answers, only a phone number. They connected me with the team's psychological specialist, Dr. Ray Karesky. I'd known Ray for a long time, but I'd never thought I would be one of the guys who needed his help. Ray was a psychologist, but most players looked at him as a baseball shrink, and shrinks were for the weak, and the weak did not belong in pro baseball. Talking to the team's brain doctor was marking yourself for career death.

But baseball was not all there was to life—a lesson I was learning the hard way. It couldn't be; if it was, then the way I was feeling in that moment would be what awaited me when my career ended. I couldn't accept that.

Because of my injury—and the rock-bottom crash-landing that followed—I discovered that baseball can't tell a player who he is, only what he does. And that playing baseball, even at the professional level, doesn't mean you are a strong person. Looking at yourself honestly, openly, with no gilded jersey, celebrity job title or macho slogans to hide behind, and being OK with what you see—that was strength.

Dr. Karesky and I talked every other day during my 2010 rehab. We stripped away cliches and myths I based my whole life on to push myself to the level where I was. If I was ever going to find myself in the mess, it all had to go.

I did not make a full recovery from my shoulder surgery. I rehabbed the whole year, but I was never the same. My velocity dropped, my name was linked to instability and the following season my career in sports ended with the Durham Bulls, the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

I did, however, make a full mental recovery. In fact, in many ways I became stronger mentally than I was before. I detailed the entirety of my injury experience in my third book, Bigger Than the Game. After it was released, I received dozens of emails from major league, minor league and amateur players echoing my sentiments on injury. For most players, it was the hardest, most frightening experience they'd ever known. For most players, it was the first time they had to face a life where the word "player" no longer applied.

Injury is the single hardest thing an athlete will go through, but no one tells you why. That's because if they did, they would sound weak. This is also why more players don't get help when they are hurt physically or mentally, why substance abuse skyrockets when players are injured and why many players retire and become alcoholics.

It's difficult to explain just what a complicated, emotional, unquantifiable mess injuries are, or how it can rack players to their core, disrupting all the conditioning they've trusted to make themselves the best. But even if they can't explain all of this, or the feelings they are having while going through injury, it doesn't mean they shouldn't try.

The effort they put forth in that moment might just be their strongest performance, and that's nothing to be ashamed of.


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