After a slow rise through the minors, John Baker(notes) joined the Florida Marlins in July 2008. He hit a home run in his second major league game and quickly established himself as the team's starting catcher. His fortunes turned sour in the 2010 season, when a lingering elbow injury eventually required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in September.
We are humbled to host Baker's comeback story in an open-ended series of posts written by him.
Athercare is a physical therapy clinic near my home in Castro Valley, Calif., owned and operated by Dr. Don Chu. A legend in the strength and conditioning industry, Don is quiet and contemplative with an impish grin and a sheer enjoyment of sport. He has made it his business to rehabilitate and train injured people and athletes in the Bay Area. All of the walls at Athercare contain sports memorabilia, and every patient who walks through the doors is treated like an Olympic medalist — including some actual Olympic medalists.
As a baseball player, I couldn't ask for a better fit for a chief strength and conditioning specialist than Kyle Barbour, CSCS. Before taking the job at Athercare, Kyle spent three years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It is rare to find someone at home that has an expertise finely attuned with my individual and specific needs. In Kyle and Don, I have found two.
Six days a week, from October through December, Don took care of all of my therapy while Kyle worked on the long (and still ongoing) re-strengthening process. After a series of stretches, Don would perform an ultrasound, assess of my range of motion and begin augmented soft tissue mobilization, or ASTYM.
ASTYM is a unique form of therapy where the therapist "scrapes" the patient's skin around an injured area with acrylic tools of varying shapes and sizes. When the body receives trauma — in my case reconstructive surgery — it attempts to heal itself as fast as possible. Scar tissue is laid down and muscle fibers shorten to protect the area.
ASTYM ("tooling" in layman's terms) is used to break up scar tissue, realigning the muscle fibers and promoting blood flow — and thus, healing — around the injured area. Tooling can be irritating, and often feels like you have a sunburn for a day or two, but I have experienced positive results due to the treatment.
After therapy, Kyle would put me through a rigorous strength and conditioning program, which varied over time. We focused at first on maintaining my lower body conditioning and strength before re-introducing basic upper body exercises as my elbow regained range of motion. Some of the weights we used might seem unorthodox — like this gigantic tire I am lifting in the photo — but they serve a purpose.
Rotator-cuff work and specific elbow-strengthening exercises were also incorporated seamlessly into my routine to promote healing and gain strength. We also utilized resistance training, Thera-Band exercises, sprinting, sled pushing and plyometrics, along with numerous other techniques in order to prepare my body and arm for the coming season. I always leave Athercare tired; it is one of my few constants in life.
As I healed, I began to resume baseball activity. I split my time between Evans Diamond at Cal and The Total Player Center in Pleasanton. Dave Esquer, Dan Hubbs and Tony Arnerich allow me full access to the college field and covered cages. It is an ideal location to do all of my offseason baseball work. Tim Cossins (the catching instructor for the Florida Marlins) met me twice a week in order to polish my catching skills. Along with minor-leaguer Charlie Cutler (of the Cardinals organization, via Cal), I participated in all of the standard drills — block receiving, plays at the plate and pop flies.
TPC is closer to my offseason address than Cal, so a few times a week I would head there to hit with hitting instructor Dave Brown. Dave coached Kurt Suzuki(notes) in college and works with Brandon Crawford(notes) of the Giants.
TPC specializes in pitching, so there is always someone needed to catch. It is an ideal environment for younger players with an extensive schedule of classes offering instruction on every position and for any age group. They try their best to bring in professional players and scouts to coach kids, and have had Baltimore's Brad Bergesen(notes) and Oakland's Tyson Ross(notes) come through their facility.
Former major leaguer Gregg Jefferies runs the hitting program and Jason Sekany is in charge of the pitching. The programs they run put high school players in college and pro ball and are in tune with the highest levels of coaching seen in professional baseball.
And all of these folks — there are so many of them — have been helping me get on the field.
My entire family lives within a 10 mile radius, so the offseason is spent training and spending time with family. I cherish the time I get to spend with them. After the season I endured in 2010, being home was even more special. But before I knew it, January came and it was time to fly back to Florida.
Follow John Baker on Twitter — @manbearwolf — and follow Big League Stew all season for his inside look at what it's really like to be a baseball player rehabilitating from a serious elbow injury.
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Previous posts by John Baker: