A growing concern
Hamstring injuries hitting baseball ranks hard this season
Posted: Friday June 11, 2004 3:01PM; Updated: Friday June 11, 2004 3:01PM
Talk about prophetic. A couple hours before a recent game, Braves slugger Chipper Jones was perched in front of his locker, offering his thoughtful take on the rash of hamstring injuries running through baseball. A hamstring tear put Jones on the disabled list this spring and, as it turned out, later this night Jones would again pull up lame.
"I've got no idea what is going on," Jones offered after his latest tweak. "The only thing I can think of is maybe I'm just getting old, because I never had anything close to what I've had [with injuries] this year."
For Jones, there's no return trip to the DL. But rather than having the 32-year-old -- hardly an old-timer by baseball standards -- patrol left field on a nightly basis, Braves manager Bobby Cox is prepping Jones for a steady gig around first base to save his legs and keep his bat in the lineup.
It's a shrewd and perhaps overdue move, but not everyone can pull it off. Right now, there aren't enough easy-does-it jobs in the game for all the players nursing hamstring tears and pulls. An epidemic it isn't. Yet players, baseball people, doctors and trainers can't recall anything like this hitting the game, especially the seriousness of tears and length of time players are being sidelined in recent years.
Mackie Shilstone, a well-known fitness expert who has worked with individual athletes and pro teams, has put forward what he calls a "white paper" trying to figure why the spike in baseball hamstring injuries.
"A common denominator has to do with muscle fatigue," he says. "In baseball, you start to see it when you go from grass to turf, when you are in heat, not staying hydrated. So much has to with getting on that surface, getting into a position that is posturally unstable, when the pitcher gathers and everyone bends down. They get back up. They bend down. They get back up. It is poor mechanics and repetitive overuse. And then they put in people who aren't ready to go in, and they get re-injured."
According to Shilstone and other experts, the reasons go beyond fatigue to weight lifting, the abrupt stop-and-go demands of the game, players being too tight and possible side effects from steroids. Mostly, though, they believe the slew of hamstring injuries is an indictment that baseball still hasn't come to grips with how best to train for the rigors of a marathon season.
The lengthy list of victims has, at some point this spring, included marquee names like Frank Thomas, Torii Hunter, Shannon Stewart, Troy Glaus and Jose Valentin. Then there are lesser-known hamstring casualties such as Desi Relaford, Ray Lankford, Roger Cedeno, Junior Spivey, Dave Roberts and Darin Erstad. Not to be missed are, Ken Griffey Jr. and J.D. Drew -- whose laundry list of ailments includes tweaked hammies.
And the poster boy for the hamstring affliction is, oddly enough, wunderkind Jose Reyes, a 20-year-old prospect predicted to bring flash and awe to the middle of the Mets infield. Instead, the kid has been MIA since a March 14 hamstring injury that has been written off as scandalous by the New York tabloids. Reyes has suffered three hamstring injuries in the past year, though his No. 1 ache now is lower back pain, which has been brought on by restructuring his running stride to deal with those chronic hamstring woes.
None of this makes sense to moronic fans who label Reyes a gutless slacker, coddled and too soft to endure a twinge of pain. The media offers little cover and his name is mud on talk radio and Internet message boards. Consider this gem from a fan on the team's official site: "Reyes, You're a Bum --- Cut off your legs and put prosthetics on ... I don't want to hear about stupid hamstrings."
You tear a hamstring and medical experts say you're looking at six-to-eight weeks to fully heal -- though million-dollar pro athletes routinely are hustled back sooner. Often, there isn't time to thoroughly evaluate a structural imbalance or what triggered the initial injury.
"You have to shut it down and identify the reasons," Shilstone says. "So many times [teams] are forced into a situation of treating the symptoms because they don't have the time. But the hamstring strain is a red flag of a symptom. If you don't get the problem addressed, you still have the original problem and now you have a second problem that was only a symptom before."
Shilstone suspects that is the case with Reyes, though he's never evaluated him. And experts such as Dr. Glenn Terry, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hughston Sports Medicine Clinic in Columbus, Ga., and a medical director at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, suggests that baseball has fallen short of other sports in consistency of conditioning.
"Your conditioning varies individual to individual," Dr. Terry says. "And tight hamstrings are real common in baseball players."
Lance Kelly, a physical therapist and trainer at the Hughston Clinic, says the problem is compounded because players are over-training or not training properly. He says too few incorporate baseball-specific training and there's an absence of exercises to strengthen and balance the core, which for a baseball player stretches from abdominal muscles to the knees.
"Part of the problem is this bigger, faster, stronger thing is leading these guys into getting hurt," Kelly offers. "You're constantly breakdown muscle when you work out, but they're not giving it a chance to recover. These guys are constantly staying up and eventually what happens is they just fall off the table. They end up pulling a muscle because they're so tight from constantly working these muscles.
"You walk in baseball clubhouse now and you think you're almost in football locker room. And I think that is part of problem. Baseball is such a stop-and-go sport. You may run one sprint during a baseball game. And if the body is cooled down, not warmed up properly and you haven't stretched -- bam."
Chipper knows the feeling. And every star and bench player in the game is learning, so it seems.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.