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Secret weapon (cont.)

Posted: Thursday March 29, 2007 4:03PM; Updated: Thursday March 29, 2007 4:03PM
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White Sox trainer Herm Schneider, seen here with second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, consults with the manager on when players are better off playing through injuries or sitting out.
White Sox trainer Herm Schneider, seen here with second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, consults with the manager on when players are better off playing through injuries or sitting out.

Conte tells a story from his days in San Francisco, when pitcher Brett Tomko (now also with the Dodgers) was struggling with mild tendonitis but wanted to keep going out to the mound. Conte said he successfully pushed Tomko onto the 15-day disabled list -- even though it was more recovery time than Tomko needed -- just to ensure that he didn't hit the mound too soon.

"I'm sure there were players and fans who thought he should play through it," Conte recalled.

But it's a complex negotiation. In some cases, a starter at 75 percent is a better option than the reserve at 100 percent. In other cases, the reverse is true -- although that's a harder reality for many to swallow.

Head trainer Herm Schneider of the White Sox, whose medical staff was honored by Baseball Prospectus as the best in baseball for 2006, said he regularly strategizes with White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen about playing players at less than full strength, taking into account what skills they do have available. For example, few players get more ridicule than the pitcher who misses a start because of a blister, but as Schneider points out, "those seams on a baseball, they're like a razor blade on a finger, and you can't do your skill work like you need to do."

On the other hand, there are the ballplayers who are more than prudent. Neither Schneider nor Conte believes they can be rushed.

"If he has not convinced himself he's going to be OK on the field," Conte said, "to me he's not ready, and we have to do more things in the progression to give him that confidence that he's going to be OK."

Added Schneider: "When you went out with different girls, every girl is a little bit different. Every player is a little bit different. Some handle discomfort better, some guys work through discomfort, some guys can't handle discomfort at all.

"None of us are inside of that guy's body, so if he says he still has pain or he's having discomfort, or weakness, all the things that you kind of listen for, you kind of take that as gospel."

As much responsibility as trainers such as Conte and Schneider are willing to take on, they do depend on their teams to fund their efforts. Even in this day and age, with player contracts a huge expense, there are some teams that would rather invest in a banjo-hitting vet than equipment that could help keep a star player on the field.

"When you look at teams losing millions of dollars to injuries, the amount they spend on medical equipment and personnel is out of proportion," said Will Carroll, who reports on baseball player health for Baseball Prospectus. "While I don't think there should be mandates, there are some teams that are making great leaps forward using advanced techniques and preventative testing. You could count the number of teams that take a baseline MRI of their pitchers once a year on half a hand. Less than 20 percent use high speed video or motion capture.

"I think the one area they do spend on is facilities, at least in new parks. We've seen some major changes for teams that move to new parks in their ability to rehab. This is starting to carry over to spring training facilities, which helps with long-term and offseason work. [But] baseball is well behind the other major U.S. sports and probably behind soccer as well. There's still far too much belief that injuries 'just happen' and that it's a sunk cost."

Conte agrees that baseball is behind football, though he also believes that baseball has improved dramatically over the past 10 years in how it allocates resources to medical matters, "especially in terms of specialists -- it used to be one doctor that took care of everything."

He also sees improvement in an area of keen interest to him -- injury statistics, or the ability to evaluate how well he does his job.

"If you have three hamstring injuries in a row, the media says the team is totally besieged with hamstring problems, even though those may be the only [ones] you have in two years," said Conte, whose Giants tallied the second-fewest collective days on the disabled list from 1997 to 2004. "We're getting better at tracking and accounting for all the injuries."

Someday, it may be common knowledge who the best trainers are. Maybe trainer transactions will even become a part of the Hot Stove League. But right now, a trainer could already be the key to your team's season, even if you can't always see it.

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