Break a Leg

While his teammates prepare for tonight's game at Cleveland, he is a thousand miles removed, in both locale and mindset. Soon, the Rangers will take batting practice, shag fly balls, look over pitching reports. They'll ready themselves for the Indians, for another game on another muggy summer evening in a baseball season long since lost.

Ruben Mateo prepares, too, but for something completely different. He turns off the tube, abandoning his favorite show, Tom & Jerry, and sets out for Health South, a physical rehabilitation center on the third floor of The Ballpark in Arlington.

It's going to be worth it, he tells himself, you're going to make it.

His soliloquies are filled with that type of positive reinforcement these days. They have to be. Aside from his favorite 'toons, it's what keeps him going--the prospect that he'll return to the field whole and productive, as the player who was the favorite to run away with the AL Rookie of the Year award. Return as he once was, before the broken leg, when the Rangers were a game over .500 (as of Monday morning, Texas was 10 games under) and he was playing as advertised: hot as August.

"In the beginning, when I first got hurt, it was really hard," says Mateo, wearing dark-blue mesh shorts, a white- and gray-striped T-shirt, and a loud pair of orange and blue sneaks. Large diamond studs flash from each earlobe. "It was really crazy pain. I knew. I knew [I was done.]"

Everyone knew. You could see it, hear it, feel it. Hustling to first on June 2, Mateo beat out a routine groundball. When he lunged for the bag, his leg hit the base awkwardly and folded. Teammates said they could hear a sickly "pop" from the dugout.

And then the season was over. For all of them.

"With the type of fracture he had, on the top of the thigh bone, that area of the bone sometimes won't heal," says Dr. John Conway, a sports medicine surgeon and the Rangers head physician. "Sometimes it takes a long time to heal when it does heal. In some cases it doesn't heal. It usually takes between two and five months for an average time. But so far with him, we're pleased. He's progressing rapidly."

Still, he has a long way to go--a long, curvy, pothole-filled road to travel. Scarier still for Mateo, there's no map to follow, considering the inconsistent results of other athletes who've suffered comparable injuries. Some, like Pirates catcher Jason Kendall--who suffered a similarly vicious break, albeit of his ankle--bounce back. Others, like Cowboys backup quarterback Randall Cunningham, take a little longer to return to form. And then there are those, like 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young, who, once they return, don't perform as they once did.

And you remember Mateo's injury again, and you cringe a little. Even though he's here, now, with a smile on his face, Mateo isn't that far removed from the gruesome mishap. While the therapists work him over, massage his body until tender, you realize how uncertain all of this really is. You realize it, and you realize he knows it. Knows it balls to bones, that nothing is concrete, that he has as much chance at a full recovery as he does at no recovery whatsoever.

Five days a week, two hours a day, he rehabs his left leg, the sub-trochanteric femur he broke almost three months ago. He swims, churning laps as an orthopedic remedy in a luke-warm pool. He lifts, strengthening the injured limb with countless squats and leg extensions. He stretches, limbering what was, and still is, a damaged appendage. After an hour-long operation, Mateo spent about two months healing before he was able to make a go of it without crutches. He still walks with a limp, but at least he walks.

The hope is that Mateo will fully recuperate in time to reclaim his post in center field by spring training of next year. That's the hope, anyway. But, as with any hope, the situation here is one part finger-crossing, one part do-it-yourself reality.

"After it happened, I worried about what was going to happen to me," Mateo says, smacking his gum. "But there's nothing I can do about it. I try not to think about it now. I try to watch the game. I try to learn from watching."

Meanwhile, the Rangers brass watches him. How well Mateo advances in the rehabilitation is as important to the organization as it is to the native of the Dominican Republic. They have a lot invested in the 22-year-old, and if things don't work out, if he doesn't come back, what then? Do you keep playing Gabe Kapler, who has just recently found his stroke, in center? Or do you make a move for a free agent or work a trade or crawl under your blanket and sob pathetically? Any of those plans mean shaking things up and likely losing something--cash, players--to fix an outfield that, just a few months ago, had the front office beaming.

"It's kind of a positive that he's coming along so well, but we can't have him back until the spring," Texas General Manager Doug Melvin says. "It's hard to tell with those types of injuries. We'll just have to wait.

"It was disappointing. Obviously, a little bit of a bummer or depressing. We were hoping for him to have a second half turnaround like we're seeing with Gabe [Kapler]. But there was never a chance for that to happen [after the injury]."

Mateo thinks about that often, while lifting or swimming or watching the cat and the mouse. What might have been had his leg stayed in one piece?

It's a burden on his psyche. But then, the burden, that's nothing new. There were weighty expectations from the beginning. Before the accident, there were demands on the rookie. Pundits said he'd have to be an essential asset for the team to make another run at the playoffs. Coincidentally or not, his injury almost coincided with the club's swoon, one that effectively destroyed any chances the Rangers had of claiming another AL West crown.

"It's something that made me feel sad," he says. "[The losing] started right after my injury. It makes me feel bad, like it was some of my fault. I want to be there to help the team."

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez