Royals’ physical therapist on Sal Perez recovery
As anxious as Salvador Perez might have been about looming consequences when he was being prepped for Tommy John surgery on March 6 in Los Angeles, a seemingly cosmetic concern stood out above all else to the Royals’ star.
“‘I don’t care how big your scar is,’ ” he told surgeon Neal ElAttrache. “‘Don’t get into my tattoo.’ ”
Meaning the one on his right bicep commemorating the Royals’ 2015 World Series championship, the one he somehow remained acutely conscious of even as he was barely emerging from the haze of anesthesia.
“Sure enough, that was one of his first questions after surgery: ‘Did he get into my tattoo?’ ” said Jeff Blum, the team’s physical therapist/rehabilitation director.
Methodical and meticulous as ElAttrache had been, alas, the scar extended into that tattoo inked on the most valuable player of that series.
The image is ripe for symbolic interpretation a mere four seasons later, the hideous last two of which have made the spectacular 2014 and 2015 seasons feel like forever ago. Entering the final weekend before the All-Star break, the Royals have won just 87 of 250 games in 2018 and 2019.
Notwithstanding mainstays like Whit Merrifield and emerging stars such as Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier, much of the focus of hope for future glory, or at least competitiveness, is being incubated in the minor leagues with no certain arrival date or guarantees attached.
But the most instrumental development toward the near future might be taking place behind the scenes at Kauffman Stadium, where the six-time All-Star catcher is toiling back despite the offending scar.
Since initially being devastated by the injury, Perez now playfully offers what amounts to a Yogi-Berraism (“It’s part of the life,” he said, smiling. “If I don’t play, I’m never going to get hurt”) among other philosophical approaches to this.
“I was super-sad, but now I say thank God, thank you for the Tommy John,” he told The Star in the clubhouse last week. “Because I have an opportunity to spend the time with my family that I never have time to do … and take care of a lot of stuff outside the baseball. I put my life in the good way.”
Even while being so zealous about the rehab that he’s had to be “throttled down,” as strength and conditioning director Ryan Stoneberg put it.
About what you might expect, or at least hope for, from somebody whose exuberance is entwined with his game.
Including, as it turns out, with mirth-making as he rehabs, all the more justification for fan allegiance.
“What you see is what you get” with Perez, Stoneberg added, noting that Perez understands “you only really get one chance to do rehab right” and has approached it with the admirable urgency not everyone applies in these situations.
Blum echoed Stoneberg’s point, saying Perez “doesn’t only just bring that in front of the cameras, He brings that in the back with his workouts and rehab. And just life in general, pretty much.”
That attitude has been crucial at a time of imperative but slow-moving improvements for Perez — who may begin catching bullpens soon after the All-Star break and could perhaps throw again for the first time around July 24.
In a recent follow-up visit with ElAttrache, Perez said he was told “everything is good” … meaning he’s still on the original 10-16 month recovery pace but with many check-points and X-factors ahead.
“I’m hoping he’s going to be ready for opening day; that doesn’t mean that he’s actually going to be ready for opening day,” Blum said, adding, “Because you can’t always give players a calendar (that says), ‘Hey, you’re going to throw on this date, you’re going to hit on this date, you’re going to play in games on this day and you’re going to be back on this day.’ ”
Everyone recovers at a different pace, after all, and much of this is psychological as it is physical.
But Perez seems to have a grasp of each of those elements so far.
That means appreciating the little rewards that come with staying in shape since he didn’t hurt his legs, lungs or heart, as Stoneberg put it. And it means enjoying even tedious progressions such as finally being able to grab something with the right arm … then adding a little more weight … on the way to being able to do bilateral movements, like pull down a bar … and on to more movement patterns … and being able to take on more resistance.
Ho-hum but essential stuff in a long-term journey that comes with built-in complications that are easy to overlook from afar.
Even as Perez has typically rehabbed six days a week for five or six hours and often stays around the team in the clubhouse when it’s home, there always is a disconnect to navigate when a player goes from being essential to … not.
Or as Perez put it, “It’s hard to go outside and watch the game and see these guys play, and I don’t do anything.”
So Perez has to work a bit to be present but not at the center of things, be encouraging without being in the way.
But he isn’t suddenly Debbie Downer, as Stoneberg put it, both because he knows he has a duty to his teammates and because he can’t help himself as someone who carries a certain magical magnetism.
Still, simply catching pitches again (even if he just drops them in a bucket afterward) will make for a meaningful step of re-engagement.
“At some point, if he’s not throwing, catching or swinging a bat, he probably doesn’t feel like he’s the baseball player that he remembers,” Stoneberg said. “And for him to now have those activities, and be able to do them even at the lowest level, it’s going to scratch an itch that’s probably been there for three or four months.”
It also bears mention that trust is a major part of this, from the priority of no one overstating milestone dates (demoralizing if not met) to the fact that Perez believes in the team he’s working with.
Among others, that includes director of medical services/head athletic trainer Nick Kenney and Blum, who has been with the Royals since before they signed Perez and is so immersed in the process that he observed the surgery to get an understanding of what the doctor is seeing and thinking.
And it includes Stoneberg, who met the then-16-year-old from Venezuela at the Royals Academy in the Dominican Republic.
“He comes right up, shakes your hand, introduces himself with a big smile on his face,” Stoneberg recalled, laughing. “It’s almost overwhelming. Who is this guy?!”
Over the years, including at every level of Perez’s advancement through the minor leagues, Stoneberg has come to know that answer well about the guy he figures Royals fans practically think of as a friend because he’s so animated and accessible through social media.
“No matter how much he’s accomplished,” he said, “he still looks like a little kid having fun, and that has never changed.”
Even in the drudgery of rehab.
Sometimes adversity reveals character, Stoneberg said, but in this case it’s only confirmed it further. At 29 years old with years to play presumably yet ahead, Perez understands this is a setback but ultimately a blip in his career, Stoneberg figures.
“Someday, when they take the uniform off his back, that’s going to probably be really hard for him to come to grips with. And it will be interesting to see how that affects his mood and demeanor,” Stoneberg said. “But right now … I think he sees the big picture, and that’s the important thing.”
Invasive scar and all.
“‘If we do this right,’ ” Stoneberg told Perez, “‘I mean, bro, let’s just win another one and you can get another great tattoo.’”