Ryan Howard feels kinship with Achilles survivors
Bill White doesn’t watch much baseball anymore. More than 40 years in the game burned him out, and he found he didn’t miss it. On occasion he’ll stumble upon something that piques his interest, like last week, when he was surfing the web and clicked on a video of Ryan Howard that looked painfully familiar.
There is a bond among those who tear Achilles tendons. It’s why when Howard went to the grocery store this offseason with his left leg in a cast and his Achilles on the mend, he would actually listen when complete strangers approached him and told stories of how they tore theirs. The gruesome pop. The nauseating feeling of the tendon rolling up and settling in a bulbous pocket in the calf. The rehab – God, the rehab – of learning how to walk again. Yeah, Howard listened. He was living it. It comforted him to know others felt his pain, even if he didn’t know the others.
Never did Bill White call Howard. White could’ve told him some stories. He was 32 when he tore his Achilles. Howard turned 32 a month after his rupture. White was a left-handed-hitting first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. Ditto Howard. White came back too early from his injury and lost his career over it. Howard … well, in a Phillies camp with few distractions otherwise, that’s what everyone wants to know: Will he recover from surgery, to what extent and how soon?
Whatever the answers, there is one thing upon which everyone, including Howard, can agree: This is the most integral year of his career. The widely panned five-year, $125 million contract extension the Phillies handed him more than a year ago kicks in this season. He posted the worst numbers of his seven years with the Phillies last season and is getting close to the age where, historically, giant sluggers have faded.
And then there’s the matter of the Achilles. The image White saw on the video – of Howard taking the last swing of the season for the Phillies, crumpling to the ground in pain, trying to will himself up and being unable to do so – reminded him of the December 1966 day when his blew up. He was on a racquetball court. He had played four or five games without stretching. The Achilles snapped. His life changed.
“I’m not going to pretend like it’s an easy thing,” White said by phone from his Philadelphia-area home last week. “Now, that was a long time ago. There are better physicians now. But it’s a difficult injury to come back from, even now.
“It ruined my career.”
The Phillies don’t want to call what happened to Ryan Howard this week a setback, the sort of semantic samba that tries to minimize a truth: Anything that doesn’t push Howard’s timetable forward sets it back. He has not worked out with the team for five consecutive days. The Phillies don’t know when he’ll return. Howard went to Baltimore on Wednesday, and the doctor who performed the Achilles repair removed some pesky sutures from the wound. He found an infection, too. The Achilles can be ornery like that. It’s not just the tendon itself – that, the doctor said, looked fine – but everything that surrounds it, each a cog of a complicated machine that won’t work unless tuned just so.
If this were any other injury, perhaps the level of obsession would not so consume the Phillies and Howard. Broken bone? Easy. Blown-out elbow? One surgery and a year of Tommy John rehab later and it’s good as new. Even a jacked-up shoulder, the most destructive injury in the sport, is less intimidating than the Achilles; doctors have spent years figuring out the best methods for fixing shoulder injuries because they are so commonplace.
Next to nobody in baseball blows an Achilles. Kevin Frandsen, who’s trying to win a spot as a Phillies utilityman, tore his in 2008. He was the last major leaguer to do so. Gabe Kapler and Olmedo Saenz had full ruptures, Jim Edmonds and Mark Grudzielanek had partial tears, but baseball simply doesn’t see the Achilles go like other sports. Chauncey Billups’ blew this year. Dan Marino and David Beckham tore theirs midcareer. Rangers catcher Matt Treanor is familiar with the injury only because his wife, volleyball player Misty May Treanor, suffered through the rehab.
It’s different than most injuries’. Pitchers can start strengthening their arms immediately after surgery. Broken bones set. Muscle tears regenerate. The Achilles renders players incapacitated for months. It functions by attaching the gastroc and soleus muscles to the heel bone, and when it ruptures, the ability to stand on ones’ tippy toes or stretch in the opposite direction vanishes. Howard’s calf atrophied as he sat on the couch for two months and watched Real Housewives marathons, the definition of adding insult to injury.
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During a news conference at the beginning of spring training, Howard called the injury a “blessing in disguise” because it allowed him to prioritize. It is a blessing, mind you, he’d gladly trade for never having suffered the injury.
“I kind of feel like the worst has pretty much happened,” Howard said. “The worst thing that could possibly happen is you blow out, and it blew out, so now it’s fixed and you take the proper precautions to get it back healthy and get it back strong and you don’t really have to worry about it again.”
Five days or a week or two weeks or however long of a setback is worth it as long as Howard returns healthy. Frandsen remembers grinding during his rehab to return by the end of the San Francisco Giants’ season.
“I didn’t want the back of my [baseball] card to be empty,” he said.
So when Giants trainer Dave Gretschner yelled at him when he limped, Frandsen straightened up. And when there was a target date for the next step, he tried to beat it by a few days. Extra calf raises, copious stretching routines – Frandsen learned about his Achilles, mastered it and made it through, he said, without a single day in pain.
Because he’s a non-roster invitee and Howard a two-time home run champion and MVP, Frandsen doesn’t want to overstep his bounds and give too much advice. Nobody yells at Howard when he limps – and he did have a pronounced limp, even before the Baltimore visit. Maybe that’s because he’s Ryan Howard, superstar, or because they genuinely do want to alleviate the pressure on him, or maybe a little bit of both.
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“The key is not to go back too soon,” White said. “I did mine in December and shouldn’t have played until August. I went to spring training in February and played in exhibitions.
“Back then, you wanted to play and people wanted you to play.”
Actually, that still stands. Ryan Howard wants nothing more than to return and show his career isn’t trending downward, that new teammate Jim Thome and David Ortiz aren’t the only left-handed power hitters who can age well, that the Phillies’ dream rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels won’t go for naught because an offense he’s supposed to anchor can’t score enough runs. For the last two seasons, he has made the last out of the season for the Phillies. While it’s just one out – one of hundreds – what those outs symbolize chafes at Howard.
“It sucks,” he said. “I’m not going to lie. It sucks. And I know how it looks to everybody, like having the season come down and you’re than guy. But I try to look at it positive like, the last two seasons I got out, I figure I’m about due. I’d love to be in that situation again. There’s going to be those times when you come through and there’s going to be those times when you don’t come through.”
First he has to come through this injury. Originally the timetable was something like early May. Could still be. Might be pushed back because of the infection. Doctors don’t know. The Phillies don’t know. Howard doesn’t know. And frustrating as that is, at least he can take solace that he blew his out in 2011 and not 1966.
Internists, not orthopedic surgeons, reattached White’s Achilles. And when spring training rolled around two months later, White’s manager, Gene Mauch, urged him to return. He was, after all, coming off a typical Bill White season: 22 home runs, 103 RBIs, an OPS over .800 and his seventh consecutive Gold Glove.
White gritted his teeth and played. His power disappeared. His mobility never returned. Granted, in 1967 and ’68 White played in the greatest pitchers’ paradise since the Deadball Era. Didn’t matter. Three years after receiving MVP votes, White’s career was over. He stayed in the game as a broadcaster in Philadelphia, then for Yankees games, and from 1989-94 served as National League president.
“I had more in me, sure,” White said. “I just hope he ends up better than I did.”
He, of course, being Ryan Howard. White doesn’t root for the Phillies, doesn’t know much about Howard, but there’s that kinship among Achilles survivors. White feels Howard’s pain.
Not just the acute sensation that comes from a burning infection and the odd feeling of a tendon reattaching from whence it tore, but the cocktail of hope and fear that comes from wondering whether things ever will be the same.
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