Sometimes it is easier for the highly skilled, purpose driven athlete to deal with injuries that happen in the blink of an eye. You crash into the wall; you take a bad step; you throw an awkward pitch. You break a bone; you snap a tendon; you tear a ligament. As painful and psychologically challenging as those injuries can be, at least what comes next is often clear cut. You get it fixed. You don't play for a month, or six months, or a year. Then, if all goes well, you do.
Andre Ethier, the Dodgers' rightfielder, has so far this season driven in more runs, 34, than anyone but the Rangers' Josh Hamilton, and has combined with Matt Kemp to give his club one of the most productive hearts-of-the-order in baseball, and an MLB-best 24-13 record. Last season, though, was a different story, as Ethier experienced the other type of injury, the kind that slowly but surely turns from something nagging to something far worse, the insidious kind that first takes over your body, and then your mind.
There is no doubt that the central reasons for the degeneration of the slick-haired Ethier's 2011 season -- from an April in which he batted .380 and did the bulk of the work toward what would become a 30-game hit streak, to an August in which he hit .253 and mustered five extra-base hits in 25 games -- were the loose particles that swam behind, and became lodged in, his right kneecap. Ethier has said that he had felt some pain in his knee since early in 2010. By late last summer, its physical impact on him was obvious.
"Basically, he couldn't hit against his front leg," says manager Don Mattingly of Ethier, a lefthanded hitter. "You really have to be able to do that. That's where all power comes from, and the torque. When you can't do that, you spin around balls and do stuff you don't need to be doing."
"I wasn't able to keep my front side closed," says Ethier. "I was pulling off a lot of pitches. Not seeing the ball as long as I possibly could, because I had to cheat to get to some."
Soon, Ethier's problems became more than physical, and they snowballed. "He's ultra-competitive -- I mean, beyond most," says Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. "And he's also really hard on himself. And when things don't go completely as planned -- which in sports, you know, they rarely do -- sometimes he takes it out on himself."
"At the beginning, it didn't really get to me, but as it went on, it did," says Ethier, 30. "Every day, once you wake up, it's: How's it going to feel? Am I going to be able to figure it out today, make an adjustment today? This is a game of adjustments, but knowing you're not only going to have to adjust as far as the pitcher, but as far as yourself, was tough to go through."
Even as the Dodgers improbably took off on a late-season flight to respectability -- they went 41-51 before the All-Star break but 41-28 after to finish three games above .500 -- Ethier's personal tailspin accelerated. It ended, finally, in the first week of September, a week before he underwent a 35-minute arthroscopic procedure to clean up his right knee, and a week and a half after all but accusing his club, in the Los Angeles Times, of forcing him to play hurt. "I keep getting put in the lineup, so what am I supposed to do?" Ethier told columnist T.J. Simers.
"I got kind of blindsided by this," Mattingly told reporters then. "That's taking a shot at my integrity, at the organization and training staff and Ned... We knew 'Dre is banged up. But I always check with him, and he's never said he couldn't play."
Ethier quickly backed away from his assertion. It was, it seems, a product of his frustration. Still, the question was whether Ethier would ever again be the player he once was -- an All-Star, one who hit .289 with an average of 25 home runs and 88 RBIs between 2008 and '10 -- and, if so, if it would happen in Los Angeles or elsewhere.
Just before Christmas, Colletti took a day trip to Phoenix to clear the air with the first player he ever acquired as the Dodgers G.M., in a trade that sent Milton Bradley to the A's in December 2005.
"He's always going to have a special place for me," says Colletti. "Sometimes things get lost, people don't communicate, they don't know what to say, they don't know how to feel. I don't want that with him. I said, let's talk. Tell me what's on your mind. Tell me how you're thinking, tell me where your frustrations are. Let's figure out how to make this thing even better for everybody. We had a nice conversation. He's had nothing but good days for us since."
To Ethier, his bounce back this season has stemmed from his health. "As soon as I got the procedure taken care of and got into my rehab, my frame of mind was, I'll figure this out," he says. "I sat down and had a deep talk with myself: It's going to be better. Figure out a way to make this work, and make yourself a productive player on this team again."
He did more than that, from the start. At April's end, he and Kemp occupied the top two spots on the National League's RBI leaderboard. "We talked about it starting in spring training, how it's us two guys, and we're going to have to back each other up," said Kemp late last month. "Usually last year, guys would walk me. This year, you've actually got to pitch to me, because you've got Andre behind me, and he can pop you too."
Soon, though, it was Kemp's turn to experience a nagging injury: a strained hamstring that sapped his power, leaving him homerless with three RBIs in 11 May games, after he'd hit 12 homers and driven in 25 runs in 23 games in April. Kemp temporarily fought off a trip to the disabled list, but on Tuesday the disabled list finally won, as it usually does.
With Juan Rivera and Juan Uribe also on the D.L., the Dodgers are suddenly bereft of three of their top five run producers. No one, though, will be missed more than the preternaturally talented Kemp, who will not be eligible to return until May 29. "We're going to have to back each other up," said Kemp, pre-twinge. "When one's not doing good, the other one has to step up."
Until Kemp's hamstring heals, the burden will be on Ethier to keep L.A.'s surprising season afloat. As last year suggested, the Dodgers can be an average club with only one of their stars in the lineup, but it will take both -- sound in body, and sound in mind -- for them to be something more than that.