Commentary

From Superman to the Invisible Man

Stephen Strasburg's long road to recovery will include rehab and anonymity

Originally Published: September 4, 2010
By Doug Glanville | ESPN.com

It is a daunting task to accept the reality of life when the game stops. A lot of the adjustment comes from slowing down after constantly being on the move, constantly being in the center of the action during the major league season. Although I was a first-round draft pick, I never experienced the kind of attention someone like Stephen Strasburg garnered when he made his major league debut. For a few short months, he had legendary status and the electric fastball to go with it.

On Friday, he began a new journey and, most likely, the toughest he has faced involving the game of baseball. Sure, it is one thing to deal with an injury and the pain and doubt that come with future surgery and rehabilitation, but it is another ballgame to figure out how to leave center stage and do it cold turkey while not on your own terms.

Strasburg is about to become invisible, a state that is quite a change from the Halley's Comet nature of his baseball presence. His imposing frame and the fanfare to go with his talents are impossible to overlook, but while he gets back to health, he will feel like he is alien to his own familiarity.

Because he showed such promise, there is a good chance his rehab will be shadowed by a camera or two to show the challenge of coming back from Tommy John surgery, but it's hardly the reason he would want to be followed. He wants to get back on the mound, and it will be a long time -- in the scheme of his baseball career -- before that will happen.

I went through a rehab of my own in 2003 after tearing a hamstring tendon on a routine groundball during a game. As a 32-year-old player, I had slowly accepted that I could not just roll out of bed and be loose anymore. My first realization of this fact came early on in my career when I had to figure out how to play without putting two leg wraps around my thighs because they were like two guitar strings ready to pop. Our head trainer (then of the minor league Geneva Cubs) came to me and said, "You need to get those legs strong enough to the point where you don't need those wraps" At 20 years old, that was news to me; I just thought I had bum hamstrings.

Lesson: You could be doing more to prepare your body despite all the things you have been doing to date.

So I vowed to play without leg wraps. Although the goal was nothing like stealing 50 bases or hitting .300, it turned out the most important goal of my career -- being independently healthy.

For most of my career, I dodged the disabled list. Sure, I had more than my share of MRIs. I rolled on my wrist in Montreal, fouled a ball off my shin in Chicago, suffered turf burn in Pittsburgh, got hit by pitch in Cincy, etc., but for the most part, I could get back on the field in short order, if not immediately. That was until I heard that hamstring pop, a sound that maybe Strasburg now knows about.

When something pops, that's the moment you understand what the game means to you. You will be on an indefinite vacation from playing and your entire day at the park will now be built around your rehab schedule. My day was about underwater treadmills, crawling around on some makeshift skateboard, ultrasound, and the fun "massage" to break up scar tissue. All this was done out of the way from the "regular" team and at different hours than the healthy players, unless they had to be in the training room early for some reason.

Lesson: You are still part of the team … sort of.

[+] EnlargeStephen Strasburg
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesStephen Strasburg likely won't pitch in a major league game again until 2012.
So occasionally, when I was with the Rangers in 2003, Alex Rodriguez would need to stretch with our trainer, or Juan Gonzalez would need something. It was those times where I saw how far down the totem pole I had fallen. My schedule had flexibility. If I didn't stretch at that moment, no big deal. I could wait 10 minutes and let the starters that night get prepared for what counted the most -- the game. This was no knock on the training staff that relentlessly hustled to get me back to health. It was just a new understanding of how your life changes when you can't perform. Performers must have their needs met, first and foremost.

So besides waiting for my career to resume, I now had to wait at the back of the line. The guy who had replaced me in the lineup now had an opportunity. Was I about to be like Wally Pipp?

Lesson: If you didn't know where you stood before, you know now.

All of a sudden, there were rules in place about how many innings I needed to watch before I could leave. A game became six innings. Instead of joining the team, I stayed home from road trips for a while. Have you ever been in an empty stadium that holds over 50,000 people? That was my gym -- home of the Texas Rangers -- as the empty seats echoed my thoughts, concerns and dreams. I'd even run into fans in our locker room who were on stadium tours when the Rangers were on the road. What am I doing here? By myself, no less.

Since I probably arrived at the ballpark around noon when the team had a night game, I was there all day. That magic sixth inning would roll around and I felt horrible about looking to leave, so sometimes I didn't. On the day when Rafael Palmeiro was vying for his 500th home run, I decided to stay no matter what just to see if he hit it. I decided to change into street clothes while I waited. When he reached the milestone home run, I put my uniform over some jeans and celebrated with him in the dugout, then I showered and went home.

This feeling of being lost was something my Cubs teammate, Shawon Dunston, used to talk about when Kevin Tapani was in the midst of his rehab. Shawon would say how Kevin must feel like he didn't matter anymore, that he was stealing money, and that as a team, we needed to give him some love. He made the point that no one felt worse about not playing than the guy not playing.

And it is worse than not playing. You feel like you are in the way. There are guys who need to get ready for a game; the guy on rehab is just trying to get ready for tomorrow, for that incremental step in improvement, for that chance to maybe throw from 45 feet, or maybe prepare for the offseason, even though it is only May. So maybe you are in the way.

Strasburg has been in the stratosphere, riding high among the stars, and no one's star has shined so bright in a long time. He created a mania. He was selling tickets, getting burgers named after him. He was a legend in a flash and just as quickly, he will be nearly anonymous. It will be a long road, but for a while, he may just have to accept being invisible. I hope he'll take the time to remember why he loved the game in the first place. He certainly will have time to think about it.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.

• MLB analyst for ESPN and ESPN.com
• Played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers
• Email: mail@dougglanville.com
• Website: http://www.dougglanville.com/

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