One Bone Down, Hank Blalock Hopes to Help the Rangers Get Back Up
SURPRISE, Arizona—In the Garden of Eden, so goes biblical legend, Adam involuntarily surrendered a rib so God could fashion a woman.
In Arlington, according to medical records, Hank Blalock voluntarily surrendered a rib for the good of the Texas Rangers.
For their troubles Adam got Eve and Blalock saved his career. Advantage: Blalock.
"It sounds weird to lose a rib, but I feel totally normal," the Rangers third baseman says while propping up his feet and munching an energy bar at his locker after the team's spring training opener last Wednesday. "I'm excited to get back where I belong as a player. For us to win, I need to have a big year."
The Rangers—seemingly strapped to the gurney for a ninth consecutive third-or-worse finish in the four-team American League West—need Blalock like Gary Busey needs Sanity 101. Desperately. They train just a couple of miles of palm trees from where the New York Giants upset the New England Patriots, so anything's possible. But with—stop me if you've heard this before—nagging injuries and alarming question marks on the pitching staff, Texas in 2008 (as in '78 and '88 and '98) is hoping to duct-tape its fortunes with an offensive surplus.
Problem: The lone Ranger with more than 30 homers in a season is also the lone Ranger with only 23 ribs in his chest. The former two-time All-Star who once carried the team with his bat has been debilitated the last two years, dragging a torn rotator cuff through 2006 and missing most of last season after surgery to remove a rib.
"For starters," says manager Ron Washington, "it's just great to see Hank out here."
A third-round pick in the '99 draft out of San Diego's Rancho Bernardo High School, Blalock initially trended more toward George Brett clone than Tony Roma's spokesman.
In 2003, his first year as a starter, he hit .300 with 29 homers and 90 RBIs and garnered national acclaim by becoming only the 13th player to homer in his first All-Star at-bat. The two-out, two-run shot off previously invincible closer Eric Gagne gave the American League home-field advantage in the World Series. In '04 Blalock produced 32 homers and 110 RBIs, making the short list of AL MVP candidates.
In 2007, after declining seasons of 25 and 16 homers, Blalock found himself at the crossroads. Then, out of nowhere, he found himself at the hospital.
In the third inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Orlando last May 16, Blalock felt his throwing arm severely stiffen. Upon rolling up his right sleeve he saw bad news: Swelling. Even worse: Purple.
"I thought it was a blood clot," Blalock remembers.
Five days later, Dallas surgeon Dr. Greg Pearl operated on Blalock to combat thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition in which nerves and arteries passing through the shoulder into the neck are impeded—in this case, by a bone—to the point of dangerously low circulation. Rangers pitcher John Rheinecker, strangely enough, was shelved early in camp with the same rare injury. Pearl removed the first rib on Blalock's right side and rerouted a nerve—a procedure that sounds only slightly less disgusting than buying a box of porn from Ron Jeremy's garage sale.
"From the scar tissue they found, I guess I'd had it for a while," Blalock says. "I just didn't have any symptoms."
Bedridden for two weeks and sidelined for three months, Blalock and his 205 remaining bones slowly began improving. First came the psychological healing, evidenced by his naming his fantasy football team "Spare Ribs" and absorbing some, ahem, good-natured ribbing.
Says Blalock, "After I had the surgery and realized I'd be back to full strength at some point, then, yeah, it was OK to joke about it a little."
Next, he got off the couch. Then into his cleats for some one-on-one fielding tutoring from Washington. And finally—on September 2—back in the batter's box, where he promptly belted a game-winning grand slam in Anaheim against the Angels.
"Let's don't be too dramatic," Blalock says. "I never had doubts about my career, or about playing at a high level. It was just a matter of getting healthy again. Now I am."
Early this spring training—for the first time since last May—Blalock fielded grounders and cut loose full-speed throws across the diamond. With a California cool sometimes perceived as aloofness, Blalock downplays his pain-free spring.
"No big deal," says the stocky dude with dueling scorpion tattoos running up his back because, after all, he is a Scorpio. "I worked hard over the winter so I could come here 100 percent, with no limitations. Honestly, the injury is something that happened in the past. The only time I think about it is when you guys ask me."
His teammates, however, are inspired, even penciling him in for 2008 Comeback Player of the Year.
"It was a huge blow to lose him so early last season," says shortstop Michael Young. "It's great to have him back because he's big for us. On our best offenses through the years, he's been right in the middle. We need that again."
Says Washington, "I now see a complete player. He's on a mission."
Almost a rite of spring, the Rangers pitching staff is as overexposed as Britney's hoo-ha. Already wincing at Kevin Millwood's tweaked hamstring, Brandon McCarthy's sore elbow and C.J. Wilson's controversial blogging, the Rangers will have to win games 11-10 rather than 1-0. And in a lineup dependent upon physical and emotional rallies by outfielders Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley, Blalock needs to be a run-producing rock.
Batting cleanup in his first three exhibition games, he went 2-for-5 with a double and flawlessly handled his first four fielding chances.
"I'm not big into predictions," Blalock says. "But I think I'm a better player now than I was before the injury. Sitting out made me want to improve the little skills and be a better player."
If he retired today, the 27-year-old Blalock would already be the second-best third baseman in Rangers' history behind Buddy Bell. And a year in which his hot-corner play is closer to emulating the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez than Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria would result in more wins and a fatter wallet.
Blalock's contract expires after the season, with the Rangers able to option for an additional year at $6 million in 2009.
"I don't think about those things during the season," Blalock says. "If I play like I'm capable everything will take care of itself, and I'll stay a Ranger. I'm just ready to play baseball instead of worrying about what could happen or wondering about what already happened."
Why God would need one of Adam's bones to create woman remains one of the universe's unsolved mysteries. Two things, however, are certain: The McRib is back. And so is Hank Blalock.
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