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Secret weapon

Trainers can be unsung heroes; 'art based on science'

Posted: Thursday March 29, 2007 4:03PM; Updated: Thursday March 29, 2007 4:03PM
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Stan Conte, left, works with Dodgers infielder Ramon Martinez this spring.
Stan Conte, left, works with Dodgers infielder Ramon Martinez this spring.
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When he jogs onto the field, the ballpark comes to a hush. His performance can make or break a season.

He could be your team's MVP, except he's not a pitcher or a hitter.

He's a trainer.

All year long, from Opening Day through the World Series, into the Hot Stove League and back again, baseball fans scrutinize stats and scouting reports and transactions, looking for any edge they can. In the midst of all this, the teams' medical staffs hide in plain sight, peppering the media with injury updates but otherwise doing their work in a void few can penetrate.

The best trainers approach their job with the meticulous and tireless effort that Tony Gwynn brought to analyzing opposing pitchers -- with the added knowledge that someone's season or career could depend on their work.

"The medical department has to believe they have an impact, and that they are responsible and accountable," said Dodgers head trainer Stan Conte, who also serves as the team's director of medical services. "If there a lot of injuries, there are excuses such as, 'You have an older team,' or 'This guy has always been hurt.' But I think at some point the medical department has to take it on themselves and say, 'We've had these cards dealt -- what can we do to keep players on the field as much as possible?'"

Treating an injured player is a bit like trying to follow Mapquest directions from here to Tierra del Fuego. Standard operating procedure exists, but there are believers and non-believers, steady hands and shaky ones, by-the-bookers and innovators. There are choices, and it does matter who is doing the job.

Conte, hired by the Dodgers in October after 15 seasons with the San Francisco Giants, surprised his new team during his first week at Dodgertown in February with an unusual emphasis on agility drills and sprints compared to the customary regimen of distance running. The Dodgers, with a reputation as one of baseball's most injury-plagued teams in recent years, enjoyed a quiet first month of Spring Training, with only two maladies of significance: a sore elbow by reserve infielder/outfielder Marlon Anderson, who later admitted he had pushed back too hard from offseason surgery, and a groin strain for reserve outfielder Jason Repko.

Then last week, it was suddenly like old times. Shortstop Rafael Furcal tangled with Repko trying to catch a Texas Leaguer and severely sprained his ankle. Repko, just back from his groin injury, had his hamstring give out while he chased a fly ball, tearing two of three tendons from the pelvic bone. And pitchers Brad Penny and Hong-Chih Kuo, the latter a veteran of two Tommy John surgeries, were suffering from shoulder pain.

Different fates await the four. Repko is probably lost for the season, but Penny and Furcal might be fine by Opening Day and Kuo in a month or so. How Conte manages their health could impact the Dodgers' place in the standings.

"It's really art based on science, and there is no real black and white," Conte said. "You have certain areas that you try to achieve [in rehab] and that give you the wherewithal to go to the next level. Sometimes when you go to the next level, you think you've checked off all the boxes, and as you increase the intensity ... the guy ends up being not as ready as you thought. ... The key is for a guy always, if he has to have a setback, to have a little one."

It's not easy, given how stubborn some players can be. If they feel like they can play, or if they feel a clubhouse or a manager pressuring them to play, then they want to play -- even if it means a risk of aggravating their injuries. A trainer does his best to be the gatekeeper.

Overexertion's like Anderson's can undermine a trainer's best intentions. Former Dodger closer Eric Gagne, now with the Texas Rangers, became notorious for jeopardizing his health in his haste to speed through rehab, losing nearly two seasons of baseball in the process.

But rather than blame such a player, Conte would count the lost time on their own ledgers.

"You always worry about that kind of thing, that they're doing things that you don't know about," Conte said. "Part of that is developing a rapport with the player, and also to explain to the player what the steps need to be and explain what happens when you go too fast. ... To me, personally -- I'm not speaking about anybody else -- I think that's my fault, because I didn't explain it enough.

"The player will say, 'Everything I've done, I've pushed and been successful.' But rehab is different. When they couldn't hit very well, they went in the cage and hit a thousand times, and they got better and had success. In rehab, it doesn't work that way, where the more you do, the quicker you get out there."

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