At an early age, Calabrese learned lifelong lesson

Keith Hernandez's insensitive remarks about Kelly Calabrese made national news. But there's far more to the woman than meets the eye.

Originally Published: May 5, 2006
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN The Magazine

The hardest part of Kelly Calabrese's job comes not when she has to walk through a clubhouse full of undressing men, or when she's enduring the grind of a 162-game season, or even when a Mets broadcaster publicly mocks and criticizes her for being a woman in a man's game. The most difficult part of her job is when nature calls.

"I can't find any restrooms on the road," Calabrese said as she let out a laugh. "Sometimes I feel like a camel."

A few weeks ago, on television, former major leaguer Keith Hernandez chastised Calabrese, the Padres' massage therapist and a member of their training staff, simply for having the wrong chromosomes while sitting in the dugout. Since then she has been thrust into a national conversation about her gender and her job.

But Calabrese, 33, was taught an early and important lesson about women's empowerment -- a moment in which the voice of one woman saved her life and has since affected her choices and goals.

"I'm still very disappointed in Keith Hernandez, that he didn't admit he was wrong about her not being allowed in the dugout. [Commissioner] Bud Selig came out and said she was allowed, the Padres CEO [Sandy Alderson] said she was allowed, but he never fully admitted he was wrong."
-- Sue McCord, Kelly Calabrese's mother

In 1975, in a Euclid, Ohio, emergency room, Sue McCord came in looking for help for her bleeding 3-year-old daughter, Kelly, who had accidentally fallen down her grandmother's pointy steps and cracked her head.

The attending male doctor stitched Kelly up and told her mother to monitor the child overnight. Just then, a nurse came into the waiting room and told the doctor something was seriously wrong, that Kelly was bleeding again, and insisted he X-ray the child.

"It will be fine," the doctor said.

"No, you need to come back in here," the nurse replied.

An X-ray was taken and revealed a depressed skull fracture; part of Kelly's collapsed skull bone was cutting into the outer part of her brain. If just 10 more minutes had passed, a neurosurgeon later told her parents, Kelly would have been dead from a fractured skull and severe hemorrhaging.

"Here's this woman, in 1975, who stood up," Calabrese said. "That has always stuck in the back of my mind that you've got to stand up for what you believe in."

Because she was so young, Calabrese doesn't remember the incident, but she heard the story often as she was growing up. And Calabrese, the first female employed full-time in a major league clubhouse, still tells the story today, as she finds herself placed in a position of answering questions about her life and work.

Regarding Hernandez's comments, Calabrese said, "At first I was angry -- I was really angry." She learned of the comments via a cell phone message after the game from her shocked parents. "But it's over and done with," she added. "Hopefully this can turn into something positive."

So how did a girl from small-town Ohio become the recipient of a former ballplayer's indignation? And how did her career path land her in a dirty major league dugout?

Calabrese's fascination with anatomy began in preschool, the result of PBS television character Mr. Slim Goodbody -- a skeleton dressed in a muscle suit. Once an extroverted child, Calabrese became introverted after the accident, in part because of her shaved head. Concerned, Tim and Sue McCord enrolled their daughter in a baton-twirling class to draw her out of her cocoon.

She took to the competition quickly and became a national champion twice, at age 8 and 11. Speaking publicly was part of winning, and Calabrese would describe to a room of hundreds what the baton-twirling championship meant to her.

"She wants to always be the best," her mother said.

Even back in 1983, Calabrese's affinity for professional athletes, and perhaps her ability to handle them, was evident.

Kelly would often tag along to the Cleveland Cavaliers' arena, where her father coached a recreational basketball team before the games. During warm-ups, Kelly spotted 6-foot-11 center Darren Tillis stretching his hamstrings awkwardly.

"Excuse me," the 9-year-old said to Tillis as the entire team looked on, "you know you're doing that stretch wrong?" At which point Calabrese demonstrated the proper technique as Tillis looked on.

By junior high she had handed off the baton in favor of volleyball and basketball, and later she would be recruited to play these sports in college. By high school, Calabrese knew she wanted to work in sports medicine. She ended up playing volleyball at Lake Erie College in Ohio before transferring to the Ohio College of Massotherapy. After graduating, she became a licensed massage therapist and a certified personal trainer.

Calabrese was interning at a clinic in 1995 when a client who loved her work -- despite the intense pain he had to endure during her massages -- mentioned he had a number of friends on the Cleveland Indians. He recommended her to Carlos Baerga, and after the first session, Baerga was a believer, sending not only teammates but also friends throughout the majors to Calabrese. Kenny Lofton, David Justice, Julio Franco, Omar Vizquel, Ryan Klesko and Bob Tewksbury were Calabrese cult followers. Calabrese was then asked by several players to travel to spring training with the Indians in 1996.

Only 23, Calabrese took her massage table and her mom -- an undeniable message that she was there just for business -- to Winter Haven, Fla., for six weeks and worked out of her hotel room. Despite the potential pretext, she said she never encountered anything remotely inappropriate.

"She's the best," said Franco, who has known Calabrese for more than 10 years and still remains friends with her. "She broke barriers, I'd love to see more ... if you prepare and you're a true professional, then why not?"

Her massages are not to be mistaken for relaxing spa specialties. Calabrese said she's had players cry because of the pain, that the intensity can induce screaming. Calabrese said she works daily with anywhere from 10 to 20 guys for about 20 minutes before every game. She also helps stretch them and assess treatment.

"I know their bodies probably better than they do," she said.

In 1998, Klesko and some other Braves started paying for her to fly separately so she could travel with the team to Atlanta's road games. When the Braves were home, she would remain at her apartment in Cleveland, working on either Indians players or others who happened to be in town.

When Klesko was traded to the Padres in 2000, he insisted that Calabrese come along. It was a huge gamble because she had to give up her private practice in Cleveland, but she trusted her instincts and flew to San Diego to give a massage to head trainer Todd Hutcheson as part of an interview.

Pleased that her technique was similar to his, Hutcheson gave Calabrese a part-time role with the club. For three seasons she continued working her magic on guys such as Tony Gwynn, Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman -- and she also developed a trust among players, who often confided in her about off-the-field problems they would otherwise keep from her male counterparts.

"It was always good to get a female perspective," said Xavier Nady, who spent three seasons in San Diego before being traded to the Mets this winter. "She was very easy to talk to."

Calabrese was a candidate when a full-time job opened in '03. Hutcheson said he asked every returning player and the front-office staff about whether hiring a woman would be an issue. Hutcheson said one guy objected, and Kelly was aware of his feelings about women in the clubhouse. But every other player supported her, felt comfortable around her and felt she was best qualified for the job.

"When you get to know [Kelly] and you see her work, and you get to know the person instead of labeling her because she is a female, she's like one of the guys."
-- Mets first baseman Julio Franco

"A lot of teams already look at us as being pretty progressive, and we knew this would be a big deal," said Hutcheson, who considers himself one of Kelly's loyal defenders. "But it was a no-brainer."

And when he called to offer the job, her reaction was, "Are you kidding, are you sure?" Tears still well in her eyes at the thought, and she calls it the most memorable moment of her career.

Undoubtedly, a few weeks ago was the low point. Hernandez apologized on TV the following day, but added that she wasn't allowed in the dugout according to major league rules. He also called Calabrese on her cell phone and privately apologized, though Calabrese declined to discuss the details of the conversation.

"I'm still very disappointed in Keith Hernandez," Sue McCord said, "that he didn't admit he was wrong about her not being allowed in the dugout. [Commissioner] Bud Selig came out and said she was allowed, the Padres CEO [Sandy Alderson] said she was allowed, but he never fully admitted he was wrong."

But Calabrese, who gives motivational speeches to groups of women around the country, feels that if her exposure can instill in just one girl a confidence that she can accomplish any goal, then something positive can come from an unfortunate situation.

While massage therapists are still uncommon in the majors, Hutcheson said that he thinks the position is beginning to mushroom. And Calabrese is not the only woman staffed in a baseball clubhouse, as the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers employ part-time female massage therapists.

"Kelly has thick skin, she holds her own in there," Hutcheson said. "She also respects the privacy of all the guys in there. And they respect her."

Soon after Hernandez's comments, Calabrese's cell phone was ablaze with messages from former players all over the country offering support.

"When you get to know her and you see her work," Franco said, "and you get to know the person instead of labeling her because she is a female, she's like one of the guys."

Calabrese will continue to make the dugout, clubhouse, team plane and trainer's room her office. And in the offseason, she'll return to her home with husband Eric in Cleveland and work her winter job as a doula, a modern-day version of a midwife. And those strong hands, ones so accustomed to healing the achy muscles of professional athletes, instead will be there to pass a newborn baby to its mother.

Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine.

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