Found in translation

I wrote a piece for Dodger Insider, the team’s in-house magazine, on how the team is working to help its international players transition to the United States. Pick up a copy of the mag if you’re heading to the stadium the week of Sept. 2, or check it out here.

 

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The last competitive advantage in baseball

Stan Conte

“People ask me all the time, ‘Is pitching natural?’ I would say that excessive pitching, throwing 100 full-effort pitches every fifth day, is not natural.”
Dr. Glenn Fleisig, Research Director at American Sports Medicine Institute, in an interview with Grantland.com, published March 10, 2015

LOS ANGELES – Good pitchers are hard to come by and losing them is costly. Nobody knows this better than the Dodgers, who have already been denied the service of two starters – Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy – for the rest of the season.

That’s more than $17 million in salary sitting on the disabled list due to injuries that came about simply by doing their jobs – throwing a baseball.

Ryu was lost to surgery on his shoulder, a joint that has bothered him to varying degrees for years. McCarthy, on the other hand, fell victim to what seems to be a rising issue across Major League Baseball – a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery.

Tommy John is a procedure in which a damaged UCL in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. The surgery is named after the first pitcher to undergo it, a former sinkerballer who damaged his UCL while pitching for the Dodgers in 1974. John would recover from the surgery and end up pitching until 1989. Tommy John surgery has saved or prolonged the careers of numerous pitchers pitchers since, but it has become so commonplace in the last four years that it has alarmed many in the baseball world.

According to Stan Conte, the Dodgers’ Vice President of Medical Services, there was an average of 15.8 Tommy John surgeries per season in Major League Baseball from 1990 to 2011.

Then, in 2012, there were suddenly 36. The number dipped to 18 in 2013, but last season it rose again to 31.

“Is there an upward trend?” asks Conte, “There is. In the last three years it looks like an epidemic.”

Brandon McCarthy
Brandon McCarthy is out for the season after needing Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

But Conte cautions against actually classifying it as such. Part of the reason for the increase, he says, is that pitchers are much more inclined to try the procedure than in the past due to its success rate. Another thing, he points out, is that there is a significant rise in players opting to undergo the procedure a second time – 11 of them in 2014 — whereas in the past those pitchers would likely just call it quits. That adds significantly to the overall numbers.

But even taking this into account, the trend is growing. So why are pitchers blowing out their elbow ligaments at an increasing rate? That’s the (multi-)million dollar question.

“Medicine is really behind on all this stuff. That’s why I spend so much time doing research,” Conte says. “We don’t have a lot of answers. What are the risk factors from a Tommy John surgery? I can give you about 10 different levels of what the risks are. We don’t know exactly which ones play into it.”

Conte mentions velocity, mechanics, previous workload and body type as some of the potential factors that could play a role in a pitcher’s health, but admits that there is not yet any concrete evidence that has been provided by the research community that points to any one thing over the other.

Maybe, in the end, it is as simple as Dr. Fleisig puts it. Maybe injuries happen simply because pitching is not natural. But Conte is not yet sold.

“I think the take home point on this whole thing,” Conte says, “is that we’re in the process of doing a lot of stuff and we still don’t know anything.”

Can pitcher injuries be prevented?

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The tricks of the leadership trade

Jimmy Rollins

Justin Turner charges as the bunt rolls down the third baseline. Collecting the ball, he wheels and fires a dart to shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who is covering third base.

If this were a game, it surely would have been an out. But since this is infield practice during spring training, it’s all about learning fundamentals, and coach Tim Wallach stops the action to scold Turner for not throwing to first. Take the safe out, Wallach says over Turner’s protests. Besides, “it’s an awkward play for Jimmy to make from that angle.”

Rollins, though, immediately has his teammate’s back. He smiles and wins the argument for Turner with a simple declaration: “I’m like Jerry Rice, baby!”

That’s the way Rollins is – confident bordering on cocky, playful yet professional, blunt but empathetic. They’re the kind of qualities that make for a natural leader, even though the 36-year-old is technically one of the new guys.

There was much talk following the 2014 season about the Dodgers’ clubhouse, and the leadership – or lack thereof – within. But while opinions may vary on how things used to be, there is no denying how they are now. With Rollins, along with his new double-play partner Howie Kendrick, who is also a first-time Dodger, the clubhouse is in good hands.

“Those guys have been great players for a long time,” says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who acknowledged that the “street cred” of both Rollins and Kendrick made them instant hits in the clubhouse despite being newcomers. “We just ask Jimmy and Howie both, to just be themselves. That’s all we’re gonna need. We’re not going to ask them to do anything out of the ordinary.”

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Long bus rides, extreme pressure & playing through pain — welcome to life in the minor leagues

Josh Ravin

Josh Ravin won’t forget that night in 2012 when he was called into his manager’s office. It was good news – the Cincinnati Reds were going to promote him to Double-A. But his manager had one question for him: “Have you got any (health) issues?”

The truth was his groin was bothering him. He’d tweaked it the night before but pitched through the pain without telling anyone. He certainly wasn’t going to bring it up now. Not when he was about to be promoted. Not when he’d just spent the first 12 weeks of the season recovering from an oblique injury.

So he lied, and he got his promotion.

“I can pitch through this,” he thought.

He didn’t want to go back on the disabled list, didn’t want to gain a reputation of being injury prone, and certainly didn’t want to miss any more time in the field. You only get so many chances in this game and if you stay off the field long enough, they’ll forget about you. Out of sight, out of mind.

Such is the pressure of advancing through the minor leagues. You’re always looking for ways to improve, ways to get noticed, ways to move up, all while competing against your own teammates to earn a spot at the next level.

The road through the minor leagues is a difficult one to navigate. The bus rides are long and uncomfortable, the crowds are small and the facilities are low-rent. And the salaries are much, much smaller than those in the majors. It’s enough to make a guy play through pain, or even lie about an injury. Such is life in the minor leagues.

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Dodgers’ top prospects face big league pressure

Corey Seager

Yasmani Grandal knows what it’s like to be a top minor league prospect, and he knows all about the pressure that comes with it.

The Cincinnati Reds’ first-round pick in 2010, Grandal signed a major league contract in August of that year and was placed on the 40-man roster, a rarity for a draft pick. With the high draft standing came hype. Some called Grandal “a steal” as the No. 12 pick, and the Reds said the “very polished” player would be on the fast track to the majors.

But when Grandal got to camp it was an eye-opening experience. It was a veteran clubhouse manned by the likes of Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, Bronson Arroyo and Brandon Phillips. The 22-year-old Grandal suddenly realized he didn’t have any idea what it took to be a major league baseball player.

“It was kind of nerve-racking because one year I’m watching all these guys play in the big leagues, the next year I’m with them in big league camp,” says Grandal. “I was more starstruck than anything, you know?”

Grandal found the pace of camp overwhelming, even though he only caught bullpens and rarely got to hit in games.

“It seemed like I was getting there at six in the morning and all of a sudden I was coming back home,” he recalls. “It was just one big blur.”

Grandal would recover, rising all the way to Triple-A in his first full season, hitting .305 with a .901 OPS in the process. He says he learned a lesson in that first big league camp, a lesson he can pass on to a group of talented young Dodgers prospects that includes Corey Seager, Julio Urias and Joc Pederson.

“Don’t rush, believe in the process,” says Grandal, now entering his fourth major league season at 26. “I came up pretty quick, and I had to learn a lot of things in the big leagues. It’s a process for a reason. There’s a reason why there’s a (farm) system, so don’t worry about it. If they’re good enough they’re going to be there.”

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When top prospects collide

Dodgers media and fans got to see a glimpse of the future when 18-year-old pitcher Julio Urias squared off with 22-year-old outfielder Joc Pederson in live batting practice.

Sandy Koufax, Mark McGwire, Rick Honeycutt and Farhan Zaidi were all there to watch, along with a healthy collection of media members.

What happened? You can see for yourself below, but in short, edge to Urias.

Later in the clubhouse, Pederson said simply: “He’s 18 and throwing 96. That’s … not normal.”

62 players, one goal at Dodgers’ spring training camp

INSIDE THE GAME

GLENDALE, Ariz. – They’re hitting in the cages, throwing batting practice, working on defensive drills and even battling on the clubhouse ping-pong table. They come from Cuba and Korea, the suburbs of New Orleans, the woods of rural Pennsylvania and even from nearby Scottsdale.

There are 62 players at a bustling Dodgers spring training facility at Camelback Ranch – a cultural melting pot certainly, but where every player speaks essentially the same language.

Some arrive with the security of knowing they own one of the precious spots on the 25-man big league roster, while others know they have a battle on their hands. Most of the younger players are aware they won’t make the team – they’re just here to get a taste of the big leagues, to learn from the veterans and to catch the eye of coaches and front office types.

But no matter their background, experience level or contract amount, all 62 of these players have one basic goal in mind: to prepare for a new baseball season.

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Growing up with the Showtime Lakers

Anita Scott and her family were riding on a float through downtown Los Angeles.

Fans lined the streets, shouting, celebrating and carrying on. Anita’s husband Byron had just completed his fourth season with the Lakers, helping his team beat the Boston Celtics to earn the second of what would be three championship rings.

But something was wrong. Her young son Thomas was missing. She scanned the float, the street, the crowd, but couldn’t find him.

Finally she spotted the young boy. He had jumped off their float and decided he’d rather be riding with the Laker Girls.

Thomas Scott has come a long way since then. He’s now an assistant coach and scout for the Lakers, working for his father the head coach.

I sat down with Thomas to talk about what life was like growing up with the Showtime Lakers. He talked about the family atmosphere between the players and the children of the players, which in some instances still exists today. He talked about surviving Boston Garden, BBQs with other Lakers, the joy of winning championships, and the sadness of Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement, a difficult event that only brought the families closer together.

Thomas longs to get back to those winning Lakers moments. He wants to ride in a parade again. This time as a grown man and a coach.

Watch “A Laker Life: Growing Up in Showtime” here.

Dee Gordon, Carl Crawford and the art of stealing bases

Dee Gordon

This story originally appeared on SportsNetLA.com in May of 2014.

LOS ANGELES – Dee Gordon inches away from first base. He’s relaxed but focused, gaze locked on the pitcher.

At the first sign of movement, he takes off. His cleats churn up the infield dirt as he glides toward second base, sliding head first for the steal. Gordon has taken second base so handily that the catcher doesn’t even bother to throw. Instead, he and his pitcher turn their focus to stopping the Dodgers speedster from swiping third.

Stealing bases is a skill, and Gordon is better than most. Entering Tuesday’s game his 30 steals are more than 16 teams in MLB. It helps to have blazing speed, with which Gordon is certainly blessed.

But it takes more than wheels to swipe a bag. If it were that simple, someone would have signed Usain Bolt as a pinch runner by now. If it were that easy, Yasiel Puig – who could probably give Gordon a run for his money in a 100-meter dash – would have a stolen base success rate better than 58 percent (Gordon’s is 81 percent).

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