B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
in the infield
By Brian Fitzgerald
Gary DiSarcina's presence is hardly noticed in the Armory on a frigid day in late December. He has his baseball glove, but he's wearing his workout gear -- not his Anaheim Angels uniform -- so several BU athletes running on the track don't know that they are jogging past one of baseball's best shortstops.
"That's the hardest I've seen you throw," says Dan McGovern, sports medicine program coordinator at BU Rehabilitation Services. "Feel good?"
"Yeah," says DiSarcina as he fields a ground ball and tosses it back to McGovern. "Feels a lot better than it did a few weeks ago."
DiSarcina, who is undergoing physical therapy for a shoulder operation, is in good hands. Jeffrey Handler, the player's personal trainer on Cape Cod, recommended McGovern and the Physical Therapy Center at BU Rehabilitation Services to DiSarcina, a Billerica, Mass., native who lives in East Sandwich, Mass. "My main concern was going from one clinic in California to another, and at the same time keeping the continuity of the program," says DiSarcina. "I wanted to keep improving. I didn't want to go backwards or sideways, and I haven't. Dan's been great." McGovern agrees that a smooth transition was a high priority. "I think we've been able to achieve that," he says.
DiSarcina says that 70 to 75 percent of his throwing power is back, and he hopes "to be at 90 to 95 percent by spring training." As for his swing, "I'm not cleared to start batting yet, but that will hopefully be soon." The Angels can't wait to see him with a bat in his hands. Last May, after shoulder surgery ended his season, Anaheim finished in fourth place, 91-2 games behind Oakland.
To be sure, no one has to tell this nine-year veteran what he means to the Angels organization. Fans collectively moaned on the first day of spring training in 1999, when his left arm was accidentally struck by a bat wielded by an Angels coach who was hitting ground balls outside the batting cage. The blow knocked Anaheim out of the pennant race before it began. DiSarcina had a plate screwed into a broken ulna bone that was not healing properly, and was off the disabled list in June. But he couldn't swing his bat effectively, and the Angels faded late in the summer. Then, in October, his right shoulder became sore, necessitating last spring's operation to repair a torn rotator cuff.
Now Anaheim is entrusting the heart and soul of its team to McGovern until spring training. McGovern has more than a decade of experience working with sports-related injuries, and was recently invited to work as a clinician at the World Figure Skating Championships at Boston's FleetCenter, January 14 to 21. "I never get tired of singing Dan's praises," says BU Rehabilitation Services Director Bill Pesanelli. "We have a great mix of clinicians here, and we do a lot of work with athletes throughout the BU community." The facility is part of Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.
The Angels need DiSarcina healthy. After all, his two potential replacements, Benji Gill and Kevin Stocker, hit a combined .239 last year. The team doesn't want a repeat of their mediocre performances during the last two seasons. And then there was the 1995 disaster: the team attempted a shortstop-by-committee approach when DiSarcina tore a ligament in his left thumb sliding into second base in August. The Angels started four different players in the position, and the result was a comedy of errors. But fans weren't laughing when the club was 16-27 during his absence. "We had a 13-game lead in August, but it all came down to a one-game tiebreaker with Seattle," DiSarcina recalls with a frown. "We lost, 9-1. It was the closest we've come to the playoffs."
Anyone who thinks baseball is a non-contact sport should talk to DiSarcina. Among his other injuries is a thumb broken when he was hit by a pitch in 1993 -- he stayed in the game another inning and turned a double play. He also had elbow surgery in 1997, and missed four games in 1998 when he bruised his left wrist bone diving into the photographers' section to catch a foul ball. But he has consistently battled back, and his persistence has paid off. Over the years, DiSarcina has become one of the game's premier shortstops. He led American League shortstops in assists in 1993, hit .307 in 1995, posted a .977 fielding percentage in 1997, was team MVP in 1998, and enjoyed a .963 fielding percentage in 1999.
But at age 33, he faces his biggest comeback challenge. Torn rotator cuffs have ended many athletic careers. "The injury is from overall wear and tear," says DiSarcina as he works out on an upper body ergometer -- a kind of bicycle machine for arms. "It wasn't any one throw that did it. I've been throwing since the age of five. I played with it sore for about 18 months and I didn't have a full range of motion. I was throwing the ball gingerly, like a dart. Finally, I had surgery."
McGovern says that recent innovations in surgical techniques and physical therapy have allowed an unprecedented number of athletes to return to full participation in their sport. "And sports medicine for the everyday person benefits from the work that is done on the professional athletes," he says. "These advances become available to the public."
DiSarcina has taken a licking, but the Angels hope he keeps on ticking. "A rotator cuff injury can sometimes be the kiss of death for a baseball player," he says. "The doctor told me I have an 80 percent chance of being 100 percent. Those are pretty good odds."
Read the sidebar on the BU Physical Therapy Center.