The complicated recovery of A-Rod
When you have only begun resuming "baseball activities," you are probably still far from where you want to be. This week, we learned that Alex Rodriguez was in such a place, his first baseball step toward staring down pitchers in Yankee Stadium.
Like any other rehabilitation, it is a matter of steps -- many of which have nothing to do with baseball. The physical toll of recovery is plenty to bear, as the horror show of breaking up scar tissue or some twisted potion of ice and hot water could be part of your early routine. There will always come a time when you beg for baseball activity.
Nevertheless, the body will heal when it is ready, and it will glue itself together if need be. And when it is the tool of a supercharged major leaguer, the body practically is forced to function again. Only problem is, conquering the physical is only a small part of the equation.
I entered the operating room only once in my nearly 15 seasons of pro baseball. It was after a torn hamstring tendon, when the surgeon had to take out the two pieces that were left in its aftermath. It would be close to four weeks before I could resume baseball activities, and despite my fairly steady improvement week to week, it was a mountain to climb.
Yet it was the isolation that comes with being hurt that acts as the unexpected challenge. The separation from the unit, the days when you are done working out before the first pitch is thrown, the wondering where to stand when you are in the locker room -- even when you are A-Rod.
Although he is surrounded by other teammates working their way back from injury -- Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, Mark Teixeira -- as he begins his baseball activities, A-Rod seems to walk alone with all that has happened and all that could be.
It feels more like living on an island of the banned, a place far, far away from New York City and 12-6 curveballs. You are thinking, a lot, and as age continues to ramp up, the thoughts leak from the certainty of getting healthy quickly to wondering whether your ability to compete at a major league level will be there when you return.
You just don't know what will be in your talent equipment bag when your rehab is declared complete. The only certainty is that your rehab assignment is never actually complete, and never will be again. You will be on a maintenance routine forever, adding hours to your pregame prep work. If you have been through it before, as Rodriguez has on a few occasions, you also know you are never going to be 100 percent confident, even if you lost only a mere 1 percent from the doubt that enters your mind about the same injury occurring again. A-Rod has seen a huge decline in the durability that used to make him flirt with long, Ripken-esque consecutive-game streaks. Now he is day-to-day, unsure how his body will respond and adjust when his baseball activities shift back to game action.
This is reality check No. 1. When invincibility melts away with the years, neither performance-enhancing drugs nor magic rehab gurus can help much with that nagging gnome on your shoulder. The disabled list is the new normal. And it becomes every bit a part of your full season as Opening Day, something that doesn't sit well with any competitor, let alone someone with the résumé of Alex Rodriguez.
It is the great unknown that plagues players when they return to baseball activities -- the uncertainty around whether you will maintain your reputation and quality of play. I reported to Double-A and Triple-A shortly after I returned to game action and looked overmatched most of the time. I hobbled around the bases for a while until I could finally get back to my top gear, but it was a different top gear; it still felt like 200 mph on the racetrack, but my whole car was shaking. A stopwatch might not have noticed, but I did.
Then you have to learn to compete with a real health risk and the new razor-thin margin that separates you from being in the lineup and from being carried off the field, a place that was never even thought of when you used to roll out of bed during your first professional season.
Even A-Rod is not expecting to return to A-Rod from 1996. Even if he somehow gets the numbers, his body will not feel the same doing it, and there's nothing like a rehab assignment to confirm that you are far from being your No. 1 draft-pick self.
We have aged, hopefully matured, but also lost a step. And there is nothing in the spirit of a big leaguer that allows you to accept second-tier performance. You don't leave as A-Rod the everyday third baseman, then come back as A-Rod the utility infielder/pinch hitter. And with the swirl of continuing PED question marks hovering over him and the ignominious playoff demotion, he might not have time to deal with all that comes with the potential role changes that may be part of his new reality. Was that "pinch-hitting platoon" playoff role just an outlier on the career graph? Or does it indicate the trajectory of his future?
Rodriguez's body is now the asterisk, admittedly enhanced at one point or another along the way. A-Rod has been frustratingly trying to shake being a byproduct of the steroids era, a vortex that could cause one to lose a reliable way to measure how well his body can heal (and age) on its own. The signals you get from your own body could become as misleading as the cocktail that had been part of your game-play preparation when healthy.
With A-Rod or not, the Yankees are playing solid baseball. He has created his own unique set of circumstances around him through his talent and choices, so there is no true formula for navigating the waiting game after another injury-shortened year and a bad season finale. But first A-Rod must learn how to get out of his own way, something that holds true for any player dealing with recovery.
Regardless, Rodriguez will be back, waiting to take that first swing of the season, as we all wonder whether the Yankees will regain faith in what he can do moving forward. That's if A-Rod's body agrees, of course.
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