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Thursday, November 3, 2011
Sue Falsone brings fresh perspective to job

By Stephania Bell

The Dodgers organization has a history of blazing the trail -- making decisions that are all the more pronounced against the backdrop of a baseball culture steeped in tradition. It is, after all, the organization Jackie Robinson debuted with in 1947.

On Monday the Dodgers made another -- though admittedly smaller -- groundbreaking choice, naming Sue Falsone as head athletic trainer/physical therapist. She's the first woman to hold such a position in any of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues: the NFL, NBA, NHL and, of course, MLB.

While it's a big promotion for Falsone, it's hardly unfamiliar territory. She's been affiliated with the Dodgers since 2007, initially in a consulting role and then formally on staff starting the next year, as the first female athletic trainer in the major leagues.

Falsone anticipated some controversy when she got the full-time job in 2008, but, as it turned out, little attention was paid to it, and it was all positive. "I had an unbelievable experience," she said. "The [players] were absolutely nothing but respectful. The coaches were fantastic; the management was great. [My gender] was just a nonissue."

But there were a few unexpected challenges that came with being female in a male world, like finding a place to put on her uniform in unfamiliar stadiums with only men's locker rooms. "Sometimes I was changing in a closet, sometimes I was changing in a family bathroom," Falsone said. At some ballparks, like Wrigley Field, she'd have to go all the way up to the concourse and stand in line with the fans at the women's bathroom.

The players, however, made her feel like part of the team, right from the start. During her first season, Falsone made a joke about needing a glove to play catch -- a common rehab exercise. Not long after, Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier presented Falsone with a black glove with dark blue laces, her first real baseball glove. The glove bore the initials FWTMLB: First Woman Trainer, Major League Baseball. "Everyone will know it's yours," Ethier said.

Three years later, Falsone needs to add an "H" to those initials. "It was a no-brainer," said Stan Conte, the Dodgers' senior director of medical services, of Falsone's appointment to athletic trainer. "She is one of the best clinicians I've known and she brings a different perspective to injury management."

Because Falsone has been involved in sports beyond baseball throughout her career -- she also works as a vice president of performance physical therapy and team sports at Athletes' Performance, a sports training center in Phoenix -- she brings novel ideas and alternate treatment plans. "Injuries in baseball are going up, not down," Conte said. "We need to completely re-examine the way we're doing things to see what changes we can make to try and reverse that. Sue will help us in our evaluation of those measures."

Falsone gives the Dodgers organization credit for giving her the opportunity to lead the medical staff.

"I think the Dodgers have always had a culture of not letting social barriers dictate who they brought onto their team," she said. "When you look at the Dodgers organization as a whole, they've always been the first ... and that's a testament to the organization. They don't let some of those traditional biases get in the way of what they do."

But while recognizing that this is a "first" for women in sports medicine, Falsone sees herself foremost as someone who is passionate and focused on her work. She is even a bit surprised that her gender -- as opposed to her skill set -- is so much a part of the discussion about her new position.

"I just don't think about my gender every day," she said. "It's like waking up and thinking, I can't go do this job because I have blue eyes. You would never think that. So why would you think that about your gender?"