DETROIT — In a hallway adjacent the vistors’ clubhouse at Comerica Park this weekend, Matt Shoemaker walked long laps back and forth carrying heavy kettlebells in each hand. He completed sets of squats, lunges and deadlifts. He pulled himself up and down repeatedly using a TRX system hanging from a nearby wall.
This is the work Shoemaker completes five, sometimes six days a week at a training facility in nearby Ann Arbour, Mich., where he’s almost three months into an expected six-to-nine month rehabilitation from a torn ACL in his left knee. Shoemaker suffered the injury during a rundown in a game this April, and underwent ACL reconstruction surgery days later, which both ended his promising season and put him on a long road to recovery.
It’s a deliberate, tedious, not-particularly-fun process. One with a long, progressively more-challenging series of benchmarks to hit in terms of range of motion and weighted movements before he can progress to the next step. One with good days and bad. But any day Shoemaker can complete his work around his teammates, like this weekend when the Toronto Blue Jays were in town to play three games against the Detroit Tigers, is categorized under good.
“Oh, definitely — I want to be here every day,” Shoemaker said. “As much as they’ll let me, I’m going to be here.”
He’d be at every home game if he could, but the Blue Jays only have so much space and so many resources in Toronto, which means the majority of Shoemaker’s rehabilitation is being performed with Dr. Greg Schaible in Ann Arbour. If Shoemaker couldn’t be with the Blue Jays while he spends the rest of the season recovering, he wanted to at least be close to home in Rockwood, Mich., where he lives with his wife, Danielle, and their two young children.
“It’s great to be around family — 100 per cent,” Shoemaker said. “The only ‘but’ is not about family — I just want to be playing baseball with the guys, you know? So, there’s both sides of it.”
When a Blue Jays player suffers a significant injury, the club typically opts for the athlete to rehabilitate at the team’s facility in Dunedin, Fla., but sometimes exceptions are made. For instance, you probably remember Marcus Stroman rehabbing his own ACL injury at Duke University in 2015 while completing his sociology degree.
Blue Jays head athletic trainer Nikki Huffman — the North Carolinian was hired from Duke, where she completed her residency and fellowship as a doctor of physical therapy — worked daily with Stroman throughout his rehabilitation. She believes a comfortable, familiar environment has an uplifting effect on athletes undergoing a long recovery process. Rehabbing can be such a monotonous grind — it helps to have something positive nearby to help take your mind off of it.
So, when Shoemaker expressed a desire to rehab near his family, Huffman contacted some colleagues in the physical therapy community, put together a shortlist of professionals in the area and chose Schaible to work with the right-hander on his road to recovery.
Schaible checked a lot of boxes. He has access to all the space and equipment Shoemaker could ever need. He had the time to take on such an involved process, which physical therapists at nearby University of Michigan may not have. And Huffman felt Schaible was a good personality match for Shoemaker, an important aspect considering they’ll be spending dozens of hours a week together for months.
Now, when Shoemaker isn’t doing squats and deadlifts, steadily adding more and more weight as the weeks wear on, he gets to be a husband and father at home — a rare in-season opportunity for a professional ballplayer. Of course, he’d rather be healthy and pitching. But since he can’t be, this is the next best thing.
“It’s huge. If you think about it, that’s therapeutic in itself. I think that helps anybody heal better — when you’re in a favourable environment,” Shoemaker said of spending time at home. “It’s a positive out of a very negative situation.”
Shoemaker’s injury was particularly devastating considering he missed extensive time over the last three seasons with multiple forearm issues and a skull fracture suffered when he took a comebacker to the head. Feeling like himself for the first time in a long time this spring, Shoemaker pitched to a 1.57 ERA over his first 28.2 innings with the Blue Jays, looking spectacular through four-and-a-half starts. But then he twisted his knee in that rundown, and now he’s on another long, familiar road back from a major injury.
But he can at least see the finish line on the horizon. Shoemaker said he feels great and anticipates completing his rehabilitation closer to the six-month end of the expected recovery range than the nine. Later in the season, he’ll be in Toronto more often to be re-evaluated by Huffman and other Blue Jays staff, who continually present him with new challenges and benchmarks to hit.
One of his biggest tests will be completing a single-leg, Romanian deadlift loaded with his own body weight. Shoemaker’s listed at 225 pounds, which means he’ll have to perform the exercise with kettlebells weighing more than 100 pounds in each hand.
In the meantime, Shoemaker anticipates beginning a throwing program soon. If all goes according to plan, he should be free to have a normal off-season, undergoing his usual strength training routine and winter throwing progression to get ready for spring training.
“Everything feels great. I’m moving around much better. Everything’s moving smooth. Good walking. All that,” Shoemaker said. “I definitely see — knock on wood — it going very well. I could see myself being ready in six months. That would put us at the end of October. There are those mini-goals and big goals. But I just want to keep getting better every day. Let it heal — it is healing. Get strong. Get throwing again. And be ready to go.”