Recent injury just a bump in the road for RailCats’ Ryan Babineau
GARY — A pulled groin?
Ryan Babineau scoffs at a pulled groin.
Well, OK, he doesn’t. Any injury that sidelines a player for 15 games over the course of two-and-a-half weeks — especially one in that general area of the anatomy — is not something with which to be trifled.
But given what Babineau has previously endured, this process was a relative stroll along Venice Beach for him.
The 26-year-old catcher underwent five surgeries — three on his elbow (including Tommy John) and one on each hip — in the span of about two years. He barely played for three consecutive seasons, including missing all of 2011, calling into question the viability of his career before it really had even gotten going.
So some tweaked muscle?
“Basically, pulling my groin isn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things,” said Babineau, managing a laugh.
Yes, he loathed missing those 15 games, becoming increasingly antsy, growing more and more impatient with his rehabilitation and treatment. But he still diligently followed the program, knowing the importance; for better or worse, he could draw on his previous experiences dealing with injuries.
The most frustrating part for Babineau has been that he actually was feeling good before the groin injury. He had his best (read: healthiest) offseason in five years, and it was carrying over into spring training and the regular season.
“I felt great — real flexible, strong — going into that game (on May 29 against Sioux City),” Babineau said. “That’s really the thing that (ticks) me off.
“Things are slowly coming back to how they used to be — I’m not there, but I feel like I’m close. Just behind the plate, with my arm strength and my accuracy, it’s starting to come back. So I know it’s in there. Hopefully I can get there — to where I’ve been working to get — pretty soon.”
In all his years of playing sports, including football, Babineau had never missed a game because of injury — until he was a junior at UCLA.
In the fifth game of that 2008 season, he tore the labrum in his right hip (initially misdiagnosed as a strained hip flexor). After sitting out two weeks, the team tri-captain returned at well less than 100 percent, posting his worst season as collegian, after he had made the All-Pac-10 first team and was a Freshman All-American in 2006, and was an all-conference honorable mention pick in ’07.
Still, the Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Babineau in the 17th round — considerably lower than he had envisioned, especially after the Milwaukee Brewers had selected him in the 13th out of high school in ’05 — and he continued to play for their short-season Yakima team in the Northwest League.
It wasn’t until 10 games into the following season in 2009, with Single-A South Bend in the Midwest League, that Babineau — still not healed after an offseason of rest — underwent hip surgery. For good measure, he had bone spurs removed from his elbow.
“I think my elbow problems started because I played with it (the hip injury) for so long that I started compensating for it by changing my mechanics a little bit,” Babineau said. “It snowballed from there.”
Indeed, Babineau’s 2010 season at South Bend lasted just 11 games because of a torn labrum in his left hip. Also, in spring training, he had started experiencing numbness in the ring finger and pinky of his right hand; he didn’t mention anything to organization officials and played through it, concerned because he already had been out for most of the previous season. But after he knew his season was over because of his hip, he spoke up about his elbow.
And six weeks after undergoing that hip surgery, he had surgery to repair nerve damage in his elbow.
That winter, just as he was concluding the throwing program for his rehab from the elbow nerve surgery, Babineau realized something else was wrong with that joint. So did the Diamondbacks, who released him before the 2011 season.
Sure enough, Babineau had torn his ulnar collateral ligament, requiring reconstruction, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery.
Almost immediately after the Diamondbacks let him go and before his latest operation, Babineau was contacted by Greg Tagert. The catcher explained about his elbow to the RailCats manager, and the two agreed they would touch base again when Babineau was recovered.
A year later, before last season, Babineau signed with the RailCats.
“That was the only phone call I got from any team in the country,” Babineau said. “I was a medical liability, so I don’t blame anybody. So it’s good to be here, and it makes me want to do even better for him (Tagert) for giving me a chance. And any competitor, when people doubt you and don’t want to give you an opportunity, you want to prove them wrong.”
Tagert has the utmost respect for Babineau and what he has overcome.
“It’s been a trying time for him because of how much effort and work he put in, not only with the groin, but how many injuries he’s faced in his career just to even get back to the RailCats,” Tagert said.
Babineau was able to make it through last season healthy — he seemingly had turned a corner around the midway point, driving in 29 runs in his last 35 games after just two in his first 30 — convincing him to press forward. He entered Saturday night hitting .239 with a homer — a go-ahead three-run shot in the team’s win over Saint Paul on Thursday — and six RBIs this season.
Offensively, he admits his numbers have been “atrocious” since he suffered that first hip injury a half-decade ago. But, defensively, he’s creeping back toward the form of the backstop who at UCLA threw out 39 percent of baserunners attempting to steal.
“I’m still optimistic I can finish this year off the way I want to,” Babineau said. “I definitely didn’t come back to be mediocre, I’ll tell you that. When you work as hard as I feel like I have, you want there to be some results — you just hope that all the work you put in pays off.”
In his two seasons with the RailCats, Babineau has split time with Craig Maddox. Of course, assuming he can stay injury-free, Babineau would like to play every day — as would Maddox — but he has tried to maintain a philosophical approach.
“Having the opportunity to play this game is a privilege,” said Babineau, still classified as a rookie under American Association rules with all the time he has missed in his career. “A lot of people that haven’t been through injuries don’t understand how fortunate we are. It’s easy to take the game for granted. But it’s also easy to have it taken away from you, so you have to understand how valuable it is. If you don’t appreciate it now, you’re going to regret it when you’re done playing, because you miss it. When you don’t think you’re going to get a chance to play it anymore like I didn’t, or you’re skeptical if you’re going to get that opportunity, that’s when you start thinking back and re-evaluating if you did everything right and really appreciated it each and every day. I feel like I did, but now it’s to a different level, that’s for sure.”