Sunday, March 27, 2011

Requiem For A Heavyweight

The Oakland A's Eric Chavez had established himself as one of the best players in baseball during the period of 2000-2006. He was good for 25-30 home runs and 90-100 RBI nearly year in and year out. His defense was stellar and led him to six straight Gold Gloves (2001-2006) and helped lead the A's to five playoff appearances.

Chavez was as the top of his game until everything fell apart, literally. Chavez began having serious shoulder, back and other injuries (a broken right hand in 2004) that led to more time on the DL than in the field. Chavez had played in just 90 games in 2007 when he was DL'ed in July due to a lower back strain. A little more than a month later he underwent season ending surgery...on the torn labrum in his right shoulder that had bothered him since 2005. In October, Chavez went under the knife again to repair a bulging disk in his back. But wait, Chavez would undergo yet another surgery in November to remove "non-living" tissue that accumulated in his left shoulder as well as repair a tear that had caused pain during off-season workouts. Mr. Durable had become Mr. Hospital Gown.

Chavez reported to spring training to ready himself for the 2008 season, but lower back inflammation required two epidurals (in Feb., Apr.), and the 3rd baseman started the season on the DL. Chavez missed nearly two months of the season before he returned in late May. He played in 23 games, but had trouble finding his stroke (.688 OPS, two home runs). After going 0-3 on July 1, Chavez was placed on the disabled list once more. In mid-August his season ended prematurely again after he underwent surgery on his right shoulder. The face of the franchise was becoming a footnote.

Spring training was slow going in 2009, but Chavez was in the Opening Day lineup on April 6. He played in nine games over a 2 1/2 week span and had just three hits in 30 at-bats before the disabled list came calling again on May 1. This time his right elbow was sore and he was diagnosed with a forearm strain. Less than two weeks after being shelved Chavez started experiencing back spasms and was found to have a pair of bulging disks. In June he underwent season ending and a second career threatening back surgery. Chavez was down, but not out.

The long-time 3rd baseman saw some time across the infield to 1st base in the hopes that it would relieve some of the stress on his 32-yr old back. As it turned out he played just one game at 1st base, but DH'ed for 29 games. Then came May and the end of Chavez's season. Bulging disks in his neck were the cause this time. For the first time Chavez openly wondered if his career was over.

Each spring training is a time of renewal; the weather gets warmer, the birds come back north, and the sound of bat hitting ball can be heard throughout Florida and Arizona. With Opening Day just around the corner, Eric Chavez has once again made the journey through spring training. His facial hair is gone, he's not donning green and gold any more, but Eric Chavez's name will be announced on Opening Day. This time it will be in the Bronx and Chavez will be wearing the pinstripes of the New York Yankees when they take the field to play the Detroit Tigers.

The Yankees took a chance this past winter in the hopes Chavez could spell Alex Rodriguez at 3rd base and Mark Teixeira across the diamond. After endless hours of surgery, therapy, and doctor's visits, Chavez hoped that a change of scenery would also mean a change of luck. It's already gained him a $1.5MM contract and another opportunity to play Major League baseball.

Chavez made the team by being healthy and hitting the cover off the ball (.421). He put a cherry on the top of his spring training sundae with a home run, fittingly, on Sunday. He may not play in a large number of games this season, but if Eric Chavez gets to wear his uniform for 162 games he will be more than happy.

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