Mike Metcalfe spent nine years in the Angels minor leagues as an athletic trainer. He graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota in 2004 with a B.A. in Athletic Training and in Health/Fitness. In 2005, he was hired on as the athletic trainer for the Mesa Angels (now the AZL Angels). He then went on to be the athletic trainer for several minor league teams in the Angels organization: Orem Owlz (2006), Cedar Rapids Kernels (2007; Angels later changed affiliation to the Burlington Bees), Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (2008-2010; Angels later changed affiliation to the Inland Empire 66ers), and Arkansas Travelers (2011-2013).
Throughout his time in the organization, he saw many minor leaguers, but there were many notables: Nick Adenhart (2005), Alexi Amarista (2010), Peter Bourjos (2006-2008), Tyler Chatwood (2010), Hank Conger (2007-2008), Patrick Corbin (2010), Kaleb Cowart (2013), C.J. Cron (2013), Randal Grichuk (2013), Kevin Jepsen (2005; last year as starting pitcher), Luis Jimenez (2010-2011), Taylor Lindsey (2013), Mike Morin (2013), Efren Navarro (2008-2009), Darren O’Day (2006), Sean O’Sullivan (2006-2008), Garrett Richards (2010-2011), Michael Roth (2013), Jean Segura (2012), Matt Shoemaker (2009-2011), Will Smith (2010), Mike Trout (2010-2011), Alex Torres (2008-2009), Mark Trumbo (2007-2008), Jordan Walden (2008), and Alex Yarbrough (2012).
Sean Knorzer: What sparked your interest in becoming an athletic trainer?
Mike Metcalfe: Well, it really goes back to high school. I had to do an assignment, a presentation, on a career choice for some class. I went to the guidance counselor’s office and used that computer program that asked about your interests and then it spit out a number of careers that matched my interests. Athletic training was one of them. My high school didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a full time athletic trainer (but that’s a whole separate issue), so this was really my first time learning about the profession. I did the presentation and as I learned more about it, it seemed like something really interesting to me. I always had a fascination with anatomy/physiology/injuries, and of course, sports. So it seemed like the perfect combination of my interests.
As I was applying to college, I looked for schools that had accredited programs in Minnesota and decided on Gustavus Adolphus College, where I eventually graduated with a B.A. in Athletic Training and a B.A. in Health/Fitness.
A lot of athletic trainers have a story like, “When I played high school soccer, I tore my ACL and worked with an athletic trainer….and that’s how I learned about the profession.” I never had that experience. I never suffered any serious injuries in my athletic career. I just knew I liked helping people, helping athletes, and being involved in sports.
S.K.: What kind of history did you have with baseball before becoming an athletic trainer?
M.M.: I played baseball my whole life, competitively into my early 20s in college. My dad used to coach high school baseball, and umpired for a long time. So, just like a lot of things, you grow up immersed in what your dad’s interested in.
I was pretty good at baseball, and always knew that was the sport I wanted to work with because it was what I knew the best. I was fortunate to work with my college’s team as the head student athletic trainer as a senior, and then earned an internship with the Twins Major League club following graduation (due in part to my having already interned with the Minnesota Vikings the previous summer.) So that started my path into professional athletics.
Following my internship, I began looking for jobs in pro baseball, already knowing that I would have to start somewhere in the Minor Leagues and work my way up. I did the old method of actually mailing out resumes to all the teams. I got only a few responses, one of them was from the Angels and that’s how I got hired by them.
S.K.: What positions did you play?
M.M.: I played a little of everything in my day. Second base, pitcher, outfield, shortstop, third.
S.K.: How was the initial adjustment from growing up and living in Minnesota to travelling around in several different regions most of the year away from home?
M.M.: Really, it was perfectly normal. I’m not so much an introvert, per se, but I’m quite used to being on my own and being away from home. Being single when I started my career was helpful in that it wasn’t taking me away from a family (other than my parents and siblings, etc.). But what I realized throughout my career was that the job made it hard to START a family or relationship, spending 7 months away for baseball and 5 months at home, never knowing where you’re going to be the next season. There’s very little stability in the job and it’s difficult to plan for one’s future because it’s so uncertain.
S.K.: What qualities make up a good foundation for an athletic trainer?
M.M.: There are a lot of them. They obviously need to be intelligent and skilled, in regards to understanding the etiology and pathology of injuries and illnesses…you know, the book knowledge. The hands on skills develop with time and experience. Even the best students are inexperienced when it comes to, say, diagnosing an ACL sprain in the knee or UCL sprain in the elbow. But that being said, having the self awareness and humility to know your own limits and not being afraid to ask for help or second opinions from colleagues is a good quality.
Aside from the meat and potatoes of dealing with injuries themselves, we also deal with the patients/athletes as people. So, in my opinion, good athletic trainers also have a great deal of empathy, sympathy, and emotional capabilities in dealing with other people. What I mean by that is being able to comfort an athlete in their moments of despair or vulnerability. Suffering a traumatic injury is not only physically damaging, but emotionally damaging, so being able to help them cope with reality and comfort them through those tough moments is really where we transition from mere healthcare providers, to a position of emotional stability.
Athletes are just people, like anybody else, and when they have personal struggles, they need that support structure. In Minor League baseball, for example, or in a college setting, most athletes don’t have their immediate family members there for that support. The Athletic Trainer becomes a kind of surrogate parent to these athletes in times like that. So when you look at the whole picture, you not only need to be competent in dealing with the injury itself (doing the right thing, ensuring a proper diagnosis and treatment, etc.), but you need to treat the athlete, too.
You need to be able to gain their trust and confidence by understanding their emotional situation and being sympathetic to it. There’s a lot more to it than just taping an ankle or rehabbing an ACL. This also applies to physical therapists or strength coaches, too, for example.
S.K.: I noticed that you made the training staff for the Scottsdale Scorpions of the Arizona Fall League in 2012. How was that experience, especially since most of the roster were players outside of the Angels organization?
M.M.: That was one of my favorite experiences of my career. Each of the 5 teams provides 7 players to the team, so yes, 80% of the players were not Angels. At first, it’s kind of like a high school cafeteria. Everyone hangs out with their own teammates. But once they start to get to know each other, it becomes really fun.
There’s a manager, hitting coach, pitching coach, and two athletic trainers. I worked with Bryan Housand from the Pirates. We got along great and the whole staff was fun to work with. You almost forget that they’re from another organization because it’s just baseball and this is our team, and it just feels natural. We try to win, we treat our athletes like our own.
It was great to meet people from other teams and learn about what they do or don’t do in regards to shoulder/elbow health for pitchers, for example. And it helps you network with other teams, too, which can be a way for some to eventually get new jobs or keep moving towards the big leagues. Plus, you’re working with top prospects all over the place. So you get to see tomorrow’s superstars before they make it.
S.K.: During your time in the Angels organization, were there any coaches or staff that you particularly enjoyed being around or working with?
M.M.: I enjoyed pretty much everyone I worked with as far as field staff goes. Field staff referring to coaches, ATCs (certified athletic trainers), strength coaches. My staff in Arkansas during the 2013 season was a lot of fun. Tim Bogar (who I think deserved to get the Rangers’ managerial job after his stint as interim manager following Ron Washington‘s departure), Ernie Young and Mike Hampton. Those guys were a lot of fun, and we had a good team, too! It helps when your coaches like to have a good time and let the players relax and enjoy playing the game, making it seem less like a job.
I also really enjoyed working with pitching coach Dan Ricabal (who is currently at LMU). He was my pitching coach from 2007-2010. What I liked about him was that he really took an interest into what I was doing with the pitching staff, and by learning and understanding my methods, he totally bought into it and helped to enforce my policies, ensuring that our guys were doing what we expected them to do. He bought into it, I think, because he could see how it was helping our players. We had multiple organizational Pitchers of the Year (Sean O’Sullivan, Alex Torres, Tyler Chatwood) along with guys like Garrett Richards, Jordan Walden, Will Smith, Matt Shoemaker.
So for me, it was invaluable to have the pitching coach completely backing my program and reiterating its importance to the pitchers. I’m not a big disciplinarian, so I don’t like to have to dish out fines and stuff. Having the coach’s help made a huge difference.
S.K.: What players were a blast to be around?
M.M.: Lucho Jimenez is one of my favorites, more for his personality. Trout was fun because of what he could do on the field and he wasn’t a national celebrity yet.
During ’07 & ’08, I always enjoyed the back and forth between Conger and Trumbo. Mark is surprisingly clever. Mark actually earned a degree while playing ball, which I thought was very admirable. He certainly didn’t need to, as he was bound to make it big. But it showed he had a lot of good qualities in his makeup. So Trumbo and Conger would also goof around, and goof around with the Kernels broadcaster on the bus and stuff like that.
S.K.: Do you have a favorite dugout/clubhouse story?
M.M.: I don’t know if I have any specific stories that are my favorites. I always enjoyed when we’d do Kangaroo Court, especially if the coaches really knew how to do it. It was just a fun way to tease each other and galvanize the team. Baseball players do some funny/stupid things, and people usually see it. So it was always fun to have a laugh at other’s expense, and then find out YOU did something stupid, too!
S.K.: Were there any particularly scary moment you witnessed in your days as an athletic trainer?
M.M.: Nothing really scares me. Seriously. When bad injuries occur, the adrenaline pumps and I immediately go into work mode. Hank Conger, back in 2007, absolutely blasted a line drive off the pitcher’s face. He ended up being just fine, no fractures, no brain injuries. Just a large amount of swelling on his cheek. That incident would’ve probably been a little scary if he was knocked unconscious because then we’d have been concerned if he was even alive. But then, of course, we’d have initiated our emergency action plan and done what we needed to do. Instead, he just rolled around uncontrollably on the mound, until we could calm him down.
I spine-boarded my catcher after a home plate collision in 2012. It wasn’t a question of whether or not he had a spinal cord injury, but more concerned about a possible vertebral fracture. So, even though some of those cases may look very grim and serious from a spectator’s view because there’s an ambulance and paramedics, we’re usually not dealing with somebody actually dying on the field.
I’ve reduced a dislocated finger on the field after an infielder dove for a ball and got up with his index finger on his glove hand pointing the wrong direction. But really, none of those things are actually scary. We’re trained to save lives, so we can’t worry about being scared of stuff like that.
S.K.: What is your take on the exceeding amount of players that have faced Tommy John surgery over the more recent years?
M.M.: Well, it’s very much a multifactorial problem. Dr. James Andrews has certainly done a lot to show how the young specialization of baseball players (pitchers, specifically) has contributed to the problem. One thing that is important for kids to know is that it’s actually good to play multiple sports year round! When I was a kid I played 2 or 3 sports, and baseball was only for the spring and summer.
Of course, I grew up in Minnesota where that was also the only time we COULD play. But you’re seeing a lot of kids (and parents who aren’t helping) in southern states where their young boys are becoming specialized pitchers, participating year round with inadequate time off. So, in those cases, if that kid doesn’t have Tommy John in high school, he might have it in college. If he gets drafted, there’s a higher chance he’s already “damaged goods,” so to speak. Of course, that is not everybody, but it’s become a noticeable trend.
So the guys who blow out in the Big Leagues, often suffered the major damage long before then. There are also differing opinions on how often guys should be throwing, whether it’s throughout the year or even in-season regarding between starts throwing.
One thing I think has made a big difference is the advancements in training and muscular development. Most pitchers aren’t body builders, by any stretch of the term, but we are much better at developing total body strength and power than we were a long time ago. So, increasing strength and power and the abilities to generate the arm speed, has placed increasing stress on the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow. We train the muscles to be stronger, but we can’t train our ligaments to be more tensile. Once those get stretched, they stay stretched until they eventually tear.
S.K.: For pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery, are there many permanent changes to workout regimens? Or are most new exercises and conditioning held primarily during rehabilitation?
M.M.: There are certainly specific rehabilitative exercises during rehab. The strength program is adjusted for their capabilities. Those guys can’t do much upper body stuff for a few months, so they get more lower body/core workouts, and then the strength coaches and ATCs modify their upper body programs. But once they’re back to fully functional, they’ll resume normal training methods.
When you hear about pitchers coming back throwing harder than before, it’s usually due to this period during rehab. Not being able to throw for 4-6 months, you’re doing a lot of legs/core/stability training and conditioning. And then once they start their throwing program, more attention is placed on mechanics, because we’re ensuring that they don’t have major setbacks from the throwing program. So, over the course of that throwing program, they may come back with a stronger overall body, and possibly cleaner, more efficient mechanics, resulting in a few more miles per hour. But it’s certainly not the reconstructed ligament itself that causes that.
(Questions submitted from MB writer Robert Livingston)
R.L.: Is there any type of balance the organization likes their players to keep in going all out on every play and conserving it for the long season?
M.M.: Nope. There is a bit of a learning/training curve associated with the transition from short season to low-A ball, the first full season. But that’s just a built in component of developing these guys for the long haul. We’ll make adjustments on volume if needed. Maybe shorten pitchers’ inning count during the last few starts in order to get them through the season while maintaining some regulation on their total innings pitched. But we would never tell a player to not go all out.
For most guys, that’s how they will make their living or get promoted. You have to play hard or you’ll get released. Position players rarely have issues with the full season. It’s usually the pitchers who need to build up the endurance to pitch all season long, and that’s when the organization and pitching coordinator will figure out the best plan for those guys.
R.L.: What is the major difference between hitters and pitchers in terms of their physical training at the professional level?
M.M.: Well, there are core exercises that are beneficial to all baseball athletes, regardless of position. Squats, for example, are good for everyone. Position players can typically benefit from more upper body muscle mass and brute strength than a pitcher would. Both positions require rapid rotational movements, typically in one direction, repeated over and over all the time, every single day.
But pitchers tend to not want as much upper body mass. The arm needs to have a balance between mobility and stability. Bulking up in the chest/shoulders would likely decrease mobility. But everybody is a different person and it always has to be individualized to each player. The pitchers always have more shoulder/elbow maintenance exercises to do to maintain health in their money-makers (arms).
Hitters have the need for strong wrists/forearms/grip for swinging. So there are some minor differences, but for the most part, a basic strength program would look somewhat similar for both positions.
We here at Maniac Ball would like to thank Mike Metcalfe for his time and for an outstanding interview!