Gordon Wittenmyer in his Sunday Sun-Times article extolled the virtues of Cubs trainer, Mark O'Neal. It's a really nice piece explaining how valuable an athletic trainer can be to the ballclub. Beyond the obvious treating of injured athletes, the job involves organizing effective treatment protocols, reviewing medical histories and records and something as simple as honest communication of his medical opinions to both the athlete and management after assessing all this medical input. It took some time but he's created a sense of trust of his judgement from athletes and management.
The line between keeping the manager and GM fully informed and not betraying a player's confidence is not a tough one to walk, O'Neal said, as long as it comes with honesty, straight talk and the confidence he and his staff know what they're doing.
I remember Baseball Prospectus' medical writer, Will Carroll, extolling the virtues of other orgainizations medical/training staffs dating back to October 2004 with him awarding Tampa the first Dick Martin/Best Medical Staff award. Subsequent winners were Milwaukee in 2005 and 2007, White Sox in 2006, and the Pirates in 2008. I wondered why the Cubs were never a part of that discussion? One component of that award was days on the disabled list. Ding, Chicago we've had some problems.
The Dick Martin award which is presented by Baseball Prospectus, honors the Major League Baseball medical staff that has proven itself best at preventing injuries, rehabilitating players who do get hurt, and for contributing to the overall baseball medicine, knowledge base. The award was named for now retired Minnesota Twins' trainer, that BP wanted to honor for his contributions to sports medicine over a 30-year career in baseball. In Will Carroll's inaugural description of the award, he mentioned that one reason trainers were previously unrecognized was because of "the secretive nature of the industry." From these secretive roots the Cubs are still working through some remaining issues.
Have the Cubs progressed from Carroll giving medical "news" like this in spring 2006? There was the explanation that Prior's poor velocity was because of his mysterious flu-like illness earlier in the off-season:
Mark Prior, on the other hand, is more worrisome. He’s still missing his normal velocity in Arizona, making some wonder how an illness could continue to sap his strength. A shoulder injury would be an easier explanation, though sources with the team continue to insist there’s no structural problem.
Things have changed in the O'Neal era to the point that his staff has won the "Training Staff of the Year" at the recent winter meetings in Las Vegas. Now, I've not previously read about this award and it's not to be confused with the Baseball Prospectus Award (for the best medical staff) but a hard earned trophy on the shelf is...something to show the grandkids someday.
Have we swapped the Kerry Wood/Mark Prior aching-breaking our hearts for the Rich Harden/Milton Bradley version? Assessment of health risk in athletes is a complex equation. I was recently skeptical about this lovefest of honesty on the part of the medical staff when the Cubs announced Harden's MRI/Arthrogram last October had subtle laxity and then at the Cubs Convention in January they said Harden had a (rotator cuff) tear, albeit partial thickness. I doubt Mark O'Neal was involved in that loopy pathway of information. Still, misinformation to the press has been the burden this orgainization has carried for quite some time. It's a big upgrade if the trainers aren't a part of such deceptions. Mr. O'Neal's got more work to do on the "culture" if the Cubs are going to vie for the Dick Martin award.
Maybe the Wittenmyer article is an attempt to make nice with the Cubs after he ripped them in his blog after all the diagnostic misinformation in mid February when Harden's slower-than-everyone-else-program for spring training was all the buzz:
Can anybody tell me what the advantage is in omitting those details and being vague about these things? It's not like the Cubs have to protect the information for the purposes of shopping Harden or for any on-the-field competitive reasons (scouts have eyes). I've covered three other teams in my career, and the ones that were most up front about these kinds of things had the fewest headaches with the way the information got out. And the fans stayed well informed, without the yo-yo effect.
Picking up Harden's $7M option as well as signing Milton Bradley to a $30M x 3 contract was weighed by Hendry after consulting head trainer O'Neal for his insight and hands on assessment as to how willing these athletes were to follow rehab protocols O'Neal was recommending. In Harden's case, a shoulder with a partial cuff tear or in Bradley's case preventative rehab for universal body-part breakdown. Certainly the transformation of Kerry Wood from broken down starter to reliable closer even with a partially torn rotator cuff happened on O'Neal's rehab watch (and Kerrry got there without the interference of a surgeon!). That's pretty convincing evidence from my viewpoint. Potentially award winning evidence of the value of an excellent trainer.
Having a good physician who makes correct diagnoses and can make good treatment decisions is just one facet of a patient/athlete's recovery from injury. As an orthopedic surgeon, I definitely rely on my physical therapists and ATC's to get the best outcomes for my patients. It's not just the rehab protocols but their insights into the specific medical problems and their judgement and feedback while treatment is ongoing. In the spotlight of professional baseball, it's the same but with Papparazzi. The Mark O'Neal era? It's not the same job as back in the day, taping Gabby Hartnett's ankles. It's a tough job getting the medical side of baseball right with all the noise from the media as a potential distraction from the task at hand. As a blog author (and die-hard fan), I guess that means myself included as noise-maker.
...and as quoted in the Wittenmyer article, Jim Hendry (I'm a GM, not a doctor) said:
''There are two or three relationships for a general manager that are most important to the success of the team. No. 1 is with the owner, No. 2 is with the manager and No. 3 is with your trainer. The successes and failures of a team rely a lot on the health of a team.''
I wish they would just give the press the correct information on diagnoses, medical tests and surgery results. Seems like a loophole that needs to be closed to complete the circle of honesty, integrity and truth...and someday (cue in the Laugh-In theme): The Dick Martin Award (oh, and a World Series trophy when you're putting presents in our post-season stockings Santa)
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