What's happening around baseball today doesn't make much sense. Modern medicine has evolved to the point where replacing an elbow ligament with a tendon is considered routine, and yet for all of the sport's knowledge more players than ever get hurt. Every year, teams fork over $500 million to players on the disabled list. It is the sport's epidemic.
Tucked away in the background, working miracles that defy explanation, is the single greatest asset in baseball that next to nobody recognizes. Herm Schneider is 60. For the last 34 years, he has been the athletic trainer for the Chicago White Sox. And over that time, they have put together a run of health that when compared to their peers is flabbergasting and can be explained by one of two things.
Either the White Sox happen to have come upon an inconceivably healthy group of players for more than a decade, or Schneider leads a training staff more than twice as good as the rest of the league's.
That's not an exaggeration. According to data compiled by the team, from 2002-2012, White Sox players spent a total of 4,026 days on the disabled list. The average across baseball was 9,496. The next-closest team in the American League over that time span was Minnesota, with 7,805 days. The Texas Rangers had 12,803, more than three times as many as the White Sox.
"I don't know exactly how he does it," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said, the perfect mirror for Schneider himself: "I'm not sure exactly why we've had success."
Neither wants to be too effusive considering the last three weeks. Even the King of Health isn't immune to the vagaries of the sport and, in particular, the arm. First the Sox lost starter Gavin Floyd to Tommy John surgery. Then ace Chris Sale skipped a start because of shoulder tendinitis. Come Friday, left-hander John Danks will throw a big-league pitch for the first time since shoulder surgery in August.
"Injuries are not an act of God in baseball," Schneider said. "They're basically self-inflicted. The act of throwing a baseball is not a normal thing to do and not a thing the shoulder and elbow were meant to do. So you have to prepare for that by making deposits into your career. A lot of work. A lot of sweat labor that overprepares you for the day you have to pitch. Because when a guy is pitching, he's making withdrawals on his career.
"Make those deposits, or otherwise, you go bankrupt."
The White Sox's account teems with money. Schneider moved from the Netherlands to the United States at 5, joined the profession as a pup, arrived in Chicago in 1979 following a stint with the New York Yankees and today is the longest-tenured head trainer in the game. The Pittsburgh Pirates' trainer, Todd Tomczyk, was born just two years before Schneider joined the Sox.
Time, in Schneider's case, equals wisdom. The White Sox own a deep respect for Schneider simply because they believe he and the rest of the training and strength-and-conditioning staff will get them healthy. There is enough precedent certainly.
"If you want to play and you can play, he will get you out there," White Sox reliever Matt Thornton said. "Like, if you're hurt hurt, he's going to take care of you, you're going to go on the DL, you're going to miss time. But if you're just sore and beat up and all that, he's not going to baby you or coddle you. You're going to get soreness. Your arm is going to be sore. Your body is going to be sore. Welcome to being an athlete."
That happens to be one part of the job at which Schneider excels. He balances his duties to rehab programs with that of hands-on work. He gives massages. He does proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, a type of functional stretching. He helps with manual strengthening – pushing and pulling to help build muscle. Floyd got all this – his shoulder remains in fantastic shape, "just perfect," Schneider said – but the elbow might as well have a brain of its own.
If Schneider's hands are his breadwinner, his larynx is a close second. Think about what any trainer does: sees a player at his lowest moment. The disabled list is loneliness incarnate and stirs ugly thoughts. If it's a hamstring pull, why the hell did something like that have to go? And if it's a shoulder injury, what are the chances of ever pitching again? Trainers get these questions every day, and how they respond can make the difference between a player who follows rehab protocol and those who find the whole thing a waste of time.
One of the most trying injuries with which Schneider has dealt was the current manager's. During spring training in 1997, Ventura broke and dislocated his right ankle in gruesome fashion. Nobody knew how long he would be out. Schneider had him back by July 24. Ventura played 1,040 games after his injury.
"The DL is just the worst place to be," Ventura said. "Unfortunately he's usually the bearer of bad news. It's what Gavin's going through. But he delivers news like a doctor would. It's matter of fact, and you deal with it. The guys who do rehab with him, you end up having a different relationship."
Like Bo Jackson, who somehow, with a degenerative hip, managed to play two seasons under Schneider. And Greg Walker, a player in the late 1980s whom Schneider saved from dying by breaking his teeth with a pair of scissors and pulling out his tongue during a stroke. Walker eventually spent nine seasons as the White Sox's hitting coach.
It would be easy to attribute Schneider's success to crazy Dutch magic or random chance that over more than a decade something absurdly high across the rest of the sport happens to be low with one team. Even if he's unwilling to share any proprietary secrets – do the White Sox draft certain types of players or sign particular-bodied free agents or develop players in a different fashion? – Schneider can celebrate another victory when Danks returns against the Miami Marlins.
On days like that, few mean more to the White Sox than Schneider – not even Danks. He is a pitcher, fragile, fungible ultimately. His velocity, according to a scout who saw him on a rehab start, is not good – barely cracking 90 mph. The shoulder is a fickle wench, and it's why Sale's tendinitis concerned the organization even though he's expected to make his next start Tuesday.
Not even the great Herm Schneider can say for sure what will come of Floyd, Danks and Sale. He has encouraged deposit after deposit after deposit, and for all the success of his transactions, he's still waiting for the next arm to blow, the next muscle to tighten, the next case to solve.
Hopefully twice as well as everyone else.
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