After 26 years with the Orioles, head trainer Richie Bancells knows how to take care of the players -- and also himself

Health & Fitness

September 12, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

He ran out of gas in the Motor City.

It was April 2001 and Richie Bancells -- long-time head athletic trainer of the Baltimore Orioles, the biomechanic who keeps the team in running order, but tends to push his own engine too hard -- was sitting inside the visitors' clubhouse at Comerica Park in Detroit, writing his post-game injury report.

Thump. Bancells' heart hit a speed bump. Then another. This was worse than being caught in one of Cal Ripken's notorious bone-crusher bear hugs.

"It felt like somebody had a corset around my chest and was tightening it," Bancells, 48, recalls.

Unforgiving work hours, relentless major-league pressure, too little sleep, too much fast food, vacation time not taken: a perfect storm of unhealthy habits.

Bancells soon found himself flat on his back in a Detroit hospital bed, with only nagging thoughts of his own mortality for company. It was, he says, "the loneliest feeling I ever had."

When assistant trainer Brian Ebel telephoned Bancells' wife and delivered the news, it didn't come as a shock. After all, they've been married since 1978, the year Bancells joined the Orioles.

"I knew something would happen sometime," says Carol Bancells, "just because of the lifestyle. So many trainers have burnout."

After spending 36 hours alone in that dreary hospital room -- and after being reassured that his heart was OK and the problem was fatigue-related -- her husband did what any true-blue Oriole would do: He unhooked his IV, walked off without telling anybody and caught up with the team. But he also vowed to change his ways.

"I learned a lot from that about exhaustion and stress and anxiety," says Bancells, who did, indeed, make changes.

He dropped 15 pounds, started jogging again and is training for a half marathon next month. He eats better, sleeps better, and is more accepting of the vagaries of life: pulled groins happen, so to speak.

Consequently, as another extended-grind baseball season draws to a close -- with the Orioles again fighting for (sigh) third place -- Bancells remains on his feet and on the job. Good thing. September always finds battered bodies piled high. Plucked hamstrings. Achy-breaky backs. Strained hips. Surgically- repaired shinbones and pooped-out pitching arms.

Bancells has no summer tan to show off -- and never will unless owner Peter Angelos decides to build a retractable-roof training room. He spends too many hours below ground tending to therapy business, which usually begins six hours before game time.

It's a massage here, an ultrasound treatment there. It's a glacier's worth of ice packs applied, an army's worth of ankles taped. It's rehab programs designed for the fallen. Bancells and Ebel do whatever it takes to keep the wounded walking until the final out of the final inning.

"They're definitely a huge part of the team," observes first-baseman David Segui, whose rusty-gate knees have made him a fixture on the disabled list. "There's no differentiation between them and the players as far as we're concerned."

But why have the Orioles suffered more collective bumps and bruises this cruel season than a team of auto-industry crash test dummies?

Bancells pauses inside his training room bunker at Camden Yards and, drawing upon 26 years of professional experience, supplies the answer to that question: There is no answer.

Call it the Random Chaos Theory of Sports Injuries.

"Some days I go out and catch more brown trout than rainbow trout," says Bancells, a Key West, Fla., native. "Who knows why?"

'He's a perfectionist'

A large open area with six treatment tables occupies center stage of the Oriole training room, flanked on the left by Bancells' and Ebel's glass-enclosed office (anatomical charts vying with family photos for wall space) and, on the right, by a white-tiled, semiprivate hideaway that houses whirl-pool machines, Jacuzzis and a sauna.

Elastic bandages are stacked in a neat pyramid by the constantly churning ice machine. One corner of an island counter in the center of the room serves as holding pen for about a dozen jars and tubes of heavily used muscle relaxant. Lubriderm. Atomic Balm. A "Special Mix Hot Salve" that's made from a secret recipe at Grubb's Pharmacy in Washington and seems capable of generating enough heat to power an alternative-energy vehicle.

Atop a side counter lies a soldierly line of scissors, scalpels and tweezers: tiny tools for treating blisters and calluses that Cal Ripken used to delight in rearranging -- just to get under the boss man's skin. Nudge a pair of toenail clippers 10 degrees off line and Bancells will notice something's awry.

"He derives comfort from having everything in place," notes Ripken. "He's a perfectionist. That's what makes him so good."

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