Travis, Jansen, Alford share lessons learned through injuries

 Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect Danny Jansen has only been healthy for a full season once in the past five years. Photo Credit: Amanda Fewer

Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect Danny Jansen has only been healthy for a full season once in the past five years. Photo Credit: Amanda Fewer

By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

BUFFALO, New York - Injuries are tough to deal with.

They’re painful to have, inconvenient to recover from, and at times, difficult to understand.

Some players spend much more time on the disabled list than others, many deal with injuries at some point throughout their careers, and the luckiest ones manage to stay healthy for the duration.

Most agree that there’s a difference between an ailment they would play through in the regular season and the post-season, and a threshold of pain to be reached before seeking assistance. Some injuries build up over time and others can happen in the blink of an eye.

Devon Travis has spent much of the three-plus seasons he’s had on the big-league roster of the Toronto Blue Jays on the disabled list. In a little over three years, the native of West Palm Beach, Florida has been on the field for just 231 matchups.

Through five minor league seasons before this year, Danny Jansen has only had one full season on the field, last year. His injuries have been flukey and all of a sudden, but he’s learned from them all the same.

Anthony Alford has spent the share of his career catching up, from being a multi-sport athlete and playing football in college, and then from little injuries that have plagued him along the way.

All three have shared similarities and differences in their injuries - in getting hurt, in rehabbing, and in learning from the process along the way.

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 Second baseman Devon Travis has been a productive big league hitter when he is healthy. Photo Credit: Amanda Fewer

Second baseman Devon Travis has been a productive big league hitter when he is healthy. Photo Credit: Amanda Fewer

It would be hard to be around someone more positive and upbeat than Devon Travis.

No matter where or when, it seems as though he is always smiling and making the most of each day. Until Tuesday, that smile was in Buffalo with the triple-A Bisons, where the 27-year-old second baseman was working his way back to Toronto after being plagued with injuries for much of his time in the big leagues.

Behind the smile, the hardest thing Travis has faced in his career are those injuries, with a knee surgery last year, a shoulder surgery before that, and a number of other aches and pains landing him on the disabled list for the majority of his time in the major leagues.

It’s been a battle at times, between wanting to stay on the field, make an impression, and try to contribute to the team, and wanting to take time away to get completely better in order to make an impact in the long-term.

“There’s a difference between being injured and being hurt,” Travis said. “When you’re injured, you can’t play even if you want to play. And if you’re hurt, or maybe not even hurt, but you’re dealing with something that makes you not feel 100 per cent, that’s a part of this game.

“So with that, being hurt, at the same time you have to understand that things can progressively get worse if you aren’t staying on top of it off the field as well. That’s something that’s been a good lesson for me, that I've learned in the past few years.”

The game - and the time he’s spent away from it on the disabled list - have allowed Travis an education he may not have received otherwise.

“It’s been a good lesson to learn,” he said. “It stinks the way I had to learn it, but when you’re a younger guy and it’s your first couple years up there [in the majors], you want to play at all costs. You want to prove yourself, and sometimes that can run you into a little bit of trouble. But there’s a difference between being injured and hurt, that’s for sure.”

Travis believes that being hurt offers a little bit more wiggle room in the process, while being injured takes players right off the field and out of the game. And there are times when it seems likely that everyone is playing a little bit hurt.

“It’s a grind,” Travis said. “It’s a lot of games, playing every day, only one off day every 10 days or so. It’s a lot on your body. The guys do a good job of taking care of themselves and we’re surrounded by a bunch of good people, especially now with massage therapy, and we have a ton of machines that help us recoup, but I wouldn’t say too many people are ever at 100 per cent. That’s for sure. Maybe on Opening Day. That’s about it.”

As the percentage dwindles throughout the season, Toronto’s second baseman has realized that it’s not just about learning when to speak up about a potential issue - it’s about the prevention of problems before they even start.

“You definitely have to listen to your body,” Travis said. “It will tell you what you need to know if you choose to listen. It’s a tough game though. You want to be out there for your team, and balancing that and being hurt is a bad mix. You have to listen to your body, and you’ve got to take care of it.

“Even when you’re feeling good, you have to take care of it. I’d say that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned is that even when you do feel good, and you don’t have anything wrong, you better stay on top of that, or something will creep up on you.”

As a kid, Travis never dealt with injuries. He hurt his left knee - not the one he had surgery on last season - in college, with similar cartilage issues that he encountered on the right, but didn’t face any other issues until venturing into professional baseball. Now in his fourth year of going back and forth between the active roster and the disabled list, he’s learned the finer details of rehabilitation.

“You have to take it day by day, and you have to look for little victories,” he said. “Everybody wants to go through rehab and have [the results] already be there. If it’s a six-week rehab, they’re already looking forward to the sixth week. You have to take pride in your work every single day, and just working out and knowing that you got a little bit better every day is what builds up to be a good rehab.”

At least outwardly, through everything Travis still maintains that signature demeanour that has helped to power him through. Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) recently told Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet that Travis's advice and positive approach helped him in his journey back to the big leagues as well.

“Being negative doesn’t help,” Travis said. “You can only help and control what you are facing at this point, whenever there’s a task ahead of me. Unfortunately that’s been rehab for the most part the last couple years.

“I understand that that’s what I have to take care of at that time, but you’ve got to live in the now. You can’t worry about what’s coming next or what’s already behind you - just controlling what you can control right now.”

Healthy and on the field for the Blue Jays once again, Travis is ready for his injury woes to become a thing of the past.

“The injuries have been the toughest part,” Travis said. “It sucks, but it’s a part of the game. I’m just looking forward to those days being behind me.”

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Danny Jansen knows all too well the feeling of cheering on his teammates from the sidelines.

Until last year, the 23-year-old catcher was injured everywhere he went along the way, only managing to be on the field for 288 games in five minor league seasons. Jansen knows that if the situation was dire, he would find a way to play no matter what, but all of the injuries he’s experienced so far have forced him right off the field.

“If it was the World Series, it would have to be a broken leg or something like that to stop me from playing,” Jansen said. “I’ve had a lot of injuries, and they’ve all been - I don't want to say fluke ones, but - strange ones, like getting hit with a bat on a swing and breaking a hand, and then having the hamate break two years ago, and the knee in 2014.

“So having that, I know what it feels like to struggle. It’s definitely turned into a strength of mine, knowing that I know what it’s like to be down there [rehabbing in Florida] and have that mental dividend right down there. It’s made me stronger for sure.”

None of Jansen’s injuries had time to build up or linger, or for him to try to play through them, because they came on all at once.

“I remember when I tore my knee up, I was running and it was all fine, and then I stepped on home plate and it kind of blew up,” he said. “And getting hit with the bat was whatever, and then the hamate just happened. I felt a little bit of the hamate coming, but I thought it could have been something else, like tendonitis, so I just played through it, and then it snapped, that’s how it goes.”

From playing one day to visiting the medical staff the next, the rehabilitation process has never gotten easier for Jansen.

“It’s crazy,” the native of Appleton, Wisconsin said. “At first, you’re in a dark tunnel. There are always buddies there, or friendships that you make, so that helps you along the way. The people down there are amazing and you’ve got to have a good mindset, but you’ve got to fight it a little bit. It always stinks when you’re missing your guys, wherever you are, and you’re not on the field, doing nothing but sitting in the hotel and going to rehab. It can be a long process.”

Through it, much like Travis, Jansen has learned a lot about himself and the game.

“Don’t take anything for granted,” the young backstop said. “Because you never know when the last game is going to be - as cliche as it sounds, and everybody always says it - you really don’t. So just keep going every day, having energy, and playing the game I love - just don’t take it for granted.”

Throughout his tenure with the Blue Jays organization, Jansen has also been continually learning about how to manage his health and his routine, but the biggest factor for him in getting to know his own body has been finally maintaining his health for a year.

“It was actually playing a full season,” he said. “Last year I did it and I was at 104 games and I don't know how many I caught, but you find out your workload and what you need to do, and if you need to work out or what you need to do when you work out. It is a long season, and it flies by but it is long, so you’ve got to maintain what you do.” 

The change in playing time also sparked a difference in attitude and confidence level for Jansen as he came into his sixth season this year with the Buffalo Bisons.

“It’s a big deep breath,” he said. “It’s like I know I can actually do this. I actually have [played] a whole, full, healthy season, so it’s definitely like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel you could say. Coming into the season I just wanted to worry about what I can control on the field and try to get better.”

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 Anthony Alford remains one of the Blue Jays' top prospects despite his recent injury woes. Photo Credit: Amanda Fewer

Anthony Alford remains one of the Blue Jays' top prospects despite his recent injury woes. Photo Credit: Amanda Fewer

Baseball has been a learning process for Anthony Alford.

Growing up playing soccer, football and baseball, he was forced into spending all of his time on a field because his mom Lawanda wanted to keep him out of trouble. That was where he fell in love with the competition and winning games, and when anything that kept him away from the field was heartbreaking.

“Whenever I’m rehabbing, I’m always itching to get back out there,” Alford said. “It sucks just watching guys out there that I’m supposed to be playing with, and competing; not being able to do anything. But at the same time, I've got to be smart about it.

“Like the situation this year - in spring training, yeah I had a hamstring problem, but if it was the World Series or a situation like that, I would play through it. But in spring training, why don’t I just take the first few weeks of the season to get right, as opposed to missing a few months later on down the road? It’s one of those situations where I want to be out there, but I have to be smart about it at the same time.”

That was a concept that Alford came into, and didn’t fully embrace at first.

“It’s something I’ve learned over time,” the 23-year-old outfielder said. “I’ve always played football, and in football you play through those things, wrap it up and continue on. But at the same time, you only play one game a week in football. It’s not like you’re out there competing every day...

“It came with the experience of baseball. For my first two years, I didn’t want to come out. I didn’t want to sit out and miss games. I was looking to play through things. Over these last few years, I've learned it’s a long season. What good is it going to do to play through it when it’s going to cost me in the long run, as opposed to sacrificing now, sit out a few extra days or a week or two, so I can finish the rest of the season.”

Spending much of his first six seasons away from the diamond - getting into just over 300 games during that span - a few of Alford’s seasons have expanded into the off-season months in an attempt to play catch up. In 2014, the young outfielder joined the Canberra Cavalry in the Australian Baseball League; in 2016, he played in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, and last year, he played in the Mexican Pacific Winter League for the Charros de Jalisco.

“Everybody needs some kind of break, but I'm just not a big fan of just sitting around,” Alford said of playing in the winter. “I know people use the off-season to regroup and give your body a rest, and at the same time build up the strength and conditioning.

“For me, I like to get in shape by playing, I guess you could say. That’s still getting me ready, by playing some games in the off-season. I'm not saying that I would do it every off-season, but after missing the first three years of my career, I kind of had to catch up. I learned a lot about myself as a baseball player.”

Alford believes he came into baseball very much behind many of his peers, though he knew he could be successful. In order to mentally catch up with the game, he monitored his own progress, and he continues to try to learn as much as he can from everyone around him.

“I watch and learn,” Alford said. “I never go back, and I wouldn’t go back and look at the video from three years ago, but I will go back and look at the video from the previous season, and see the adjustments that I made and then build on those things...

“I had to have the mindset of being willing to learn and take advice from people. Obviously their knowledge is so useful. They have way more knowledge than me, so I would just always stay open to try to learn from what they had to offer and try to implement it into my game.”

Though for many with their eyes constantly down on the farm of the Blue Jays organization it may seem as though Alford has spent more time off the field than on, the native of Petal, Mississippi feels as though his setbacks have been minor.

“Take last year for example - I had a hamate injury,” Alford said. “If you take that out of the equation, if I wouldn’t have broken my hamate, I would have played a full season. That was my third [full] season of baseball. The only year I feel like I really had injuries to where it affected me was 2016.

“The first game of the season I got hurt, I came back, and then a few weeks after that I had the concussion. That was the only season I've missed a lot of time to injuries. Last year it was a freak accident. I couldn’t really strengthen my hand or strengthen my hamate and prevent the injury. That was just something that was bound to happen.”

And while he continues to learn about the game and himself, Alford knows there is no one who wants him on the field more than he does.

“It’s more frustrating for me than anything else, because I enjoy being out there and competing and learning about the game, and I'm going out there and just having fun,” he said. “I don't think anybody is more excited than I am to get to play. It can be frustrating.

“Last year was an emotional roller coaster for me because at one moment, I'm at the highest [point] of my career, my dream has just come true, and five days later, I'm getting ready for surgery again. So it was definitely frustrating last year, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Alexis Brudnicki

Baseball has been a part of Alexis' life since her parents took her brother to sign up for Eager Beaver Baseball in London. Alexis wanted to play and asked to sign up, too. Alexis played ball until the boys were all twice her size and then switched to competitive fastball. Her first job was as an umpire for rookies with the EBBA and since then Alexis has completed her education with an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and graduate studies in Sports Journalism at Centennial College