Some might assume Mariners players undergo a routine, stress-free physical exam at spring training. But Times reporter Ryan Divish can attest that it’s no walk in the park.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The mention of a physical conjures up awkward memories of an uncomfortable time spent half-dressed in an exam room waiting for a doctor to come in and check you out in ways that you can’t forget soon enough.
But in reality it’s a quick, painless process for most people.
Mariners position players reported to spring training Wednesday for their scheduled physicals. Some might assume they would have undergone a simple, stress-free exam and head for the golf course or pool to relax before Thursday’s first full-squad workout.
Yeah, not so much.
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The Mariners’ mandatory physical is an hours-long investigative examination performed by a host of medical staffers. The intent is to understand not only the player’s current health, but also find potential future risks.
“It gives us a book on each player,” trainer Rick Griffin said. “We open up the book, and we know what’s wrong with everybody; it gives us an idea of what we need to focus on for the season.”
The physical is a process of separate exams set up in the training room and weight room in the Peoria Sports Complex. Several doctors administer it — including team physicians Dr. Mitch Storey and Dr. Justin Rothmier from The Sports Medicine Clinic in Seattle, team orthopedist Dr. Edward Khalfayan and Dr. Angela Gavanna, a faculty member from Touro College in New York who has done the physicals for more than 20 years.
“We have 11 stations that we do here,” Griffin said. “We also have a bloodwork setup and an eye exam that are set up at separate locations. By the time they get through the whole physical, they’ve had 13 different examinations.”
A thorough examination
Extensive is underselling it. The Mariners check everything.
“A lot of players come here from other organizations and say this is the best physical they’ve ever had,” Griffin said.
It wasn’t always that way.
“The first two years that we did physicals here, I was kind of appalled,” said Griffin, who joined the Mariners in 1983. “We didn’t really do too much. The guys came into a room. They were asked if they had anything wrong, then they lay on a bed and we checked out the flexibility of their hamstrings. What was amazing about then was that the players had already been practicing for one or two weeks. You think about that nowadays. You just can’t imagine sending players out in the field without doing some sort of physical on the them.”
New manager Scott Servais was impressed with the process. Servais and the coaching staff, the front office and Mariners staffers also undergo physicals during spring training.
“It’s the most thorough thing I’ve ever been through,” Servais said. “It’s my 28th big-league camp. And I’ve done some stuff in there that I’ve never seen done before. Our coaching staff is trying to rebound from the treadmill stress test.”
That is the dreaded finale of the process.
The exam begins with height and weight measurements. Players then meet with a nurse to discuss their health. Players that have traveled out of the country, particularly to Latin America, usually undergo a Tuberculosis test. Players also are checked for their most recent tetanus shot.
A visit with an ear, nose and throat specialist is next.
“It seems cursory, but down here allergies are huge problem,” Rothmier said. “Half of the guys are suffering from that.”
Next is a heart and lung station.
“We check their blood pressure and pulse rate and more,” Griffin said.
The next station features multiple examinations for the abdomen. Players are checked for any tearing in the lower abdomen, and their strength is tested. A player coming off an injury or surgery, such as second baseman Robinson Cano, is checked more closely.
Coaches over age 40 receive a prostate-cancer exam.
‘From the toe to the head’
Next is a visit to an orthopedic station for a complete check by Khalfayan or one of his other co-workers with measurements of flexibility.
“They get an examination from the toe to the head,” Griffin said. “They check everything, ankles, knees, hips, quads, muscles, elbows, shoulders and neck.”
There also is a dental checkup from Dr. Robert Levine, who practices in Scottsdale.
“He also looks for things that could cause problems with their teeth during the season,” Griffin said. “We don’t want a guy to have an abscess in July and have to miss two weeks. So if he sees something, we fix it in the spring. He also does a pre-cancer screening. They check their tongue, their glands, they check the inside of the mouth for any cancerous lesions. We’ve been doing that for a really long time. A lot of teams don’t do that.”
After that body fat is tested, which can lead to a consult from a nutritionist.
Next, the players’ grip strength is tested.
“They think it’s a contest to see who is the strongest,” Griffin said. “But the reason we do it is so if any of them have to have Tommy John (elbow) surgery, we have their strength levels of what they had before the injury. It gives us a gauge of what we need to get back to when you rehab.”
Also all pitchers have X-rays of their shoulders and elbows.
“It’s a baseline,” Griffin said. “If they are in the organization for two or thee years, we can keep X-raying we can follow the bony changes in a pitcher’s elbow.”
The stress test
And finally there is the infamous stress test, which is a 12-lead exercise electrocardiogram. Players have sensors attached to their bare chest that feed into a unit on a belt that is synced with a computer nearby. They trace the electrical activity of the heart and measure VO2 — the maximum rate of oxygen consumption.
“We are the only team that does that,” Griffin said. “We’ve been doing that for over 25 years. We do that to check the function of the heart and make sure there’s nothing grossly wrong with it. It also gives us an idea of their VO2 and their oxygen capabilities and how they do as far as their conditioning.”
A player starts on a treadmill running at a designated speed — ranging from 6 to 9 mph. Once the speed is determined, the player is supposed to run at that speed until he can’t go any longer. But here’s what makes it difficult. Every two minutes the treadmill is raised by an increment of 2.5 degrees until it reaches a 10 degree incline.
“The guys know it’s coming, they train for the offseason and it’s still very difficult,” Griffin said. “If you push yourself hard, it’s a very exhausting test. You kind of go into oxygen dep (deprivation), and your legs and your lungs and chest start to heave.”
Players say there is no real way to understand it unless you go through it.
For a middle-aged sportswriter in average shape, it was less than enjoyable. At 6.5 mph, the first two minutes were easy. The next two were like running around Green Lake.
Then it starts feeling uncomfortable, like a Fernando Rodney save situation, at 7.5 incline. When the treadmill reaches 10 degrees, there is a burning sensation in the chest that must feel what it’s like to swallow battery acid. Your feet feel like anvils.
And when you tap out at eight minutes, they push you to do 30 seconds more. The joy of the treadmill slowing is overshadowed by what it has done to you.
“I think if you went and had this type of a physical done, by the time you got done with the whole thing,” Griffin said, ‘it would probably cost $2,500 to go through it all.”