Denard Span walked into the Nationals clubhouse Saturday afternoon, walking normally, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His teammates, lounging on the couch, said hello as he walked by.
“You have it already?” someone asked, referring to the hip surgery that will keep Span out for the rest of the season.
Span laughed, and they joked that he was moving pretty well for a guy so recently reconstructed. He hadn’t had the surgery yet, of course. Surgery on the torn labrum in his left hip will take place Tuesday, and will include the shaving of a bone in the joint to eliminate what Span referred to as “an impingement” in his hip. He expects recovery to take four to six months.
Span’s whole season — the final year of his contract, the year before he hits free agency — has been spent recovering, a muddled timetable of overlapping issues that combined to cost him 101 games in the most important year of his career and the most initially promising season in Nationals history.
“It’s been tough. Just the timing of it. Just every aspect,” Span said. “It’s just been a terrible 8 months for me. Really a year.”
Span led the National League hits last season, set a Nationals record for hits in a season, and so headed home “on a high.” But he knew something was wrong with his groin, trouble that eventually required sports hernia surgery in December. Span spent the offseason recovering and rehabilitating from that instead of doing his normal preparation for the season. He played one spring training game before experiencing soreness on his right side. On March 9, he had surgery on his right abdominal muscle. The prognosis was uncertain then, but suggested he may be out until June. He returned in mid-April.
By June he began having back spasms, crippling moments in which his back “locked up,” as he put it, and forced him to leave games or be scratched from lineups. Then, he said, he began to notice hip trouble.
“Every time I was having the back spasms, I did feel something in my hip, but it felt secondary to the back spasms. When I went to see the back specialist, he told me nothing is structurally wrong with my back, so I thought okay, that’s good. Thought everything was fine,” Span said. “He gave me back injections, cortisone injections in my back. As soon as I got those, it was pretty clear there was something wrong with my hip.”
So a little bit after the all-star break, Span saw two hip specialists. He received a cortisone shot in his hip, and both doctors told him he could try to play through the injury if he felt he was able.
“I battled, mentally, physically. Just didn’t feel great at all. I battled through it,” Span said. “After the second game (back from the disabled list), went home, wasn’t feeling good. Even though we lost, normally when I get two hits, I’m in an upbeat mood. I just wasn’t.”
Span talked to his mother and decided surgery was the best course of action — though he knew it would end his season, sending him to free agency with 61 games of work on which to build his case, removing him from the Nationals lineup that is 10 games over .500 with him in it.
“Between (free agency) and not helping the ballclub down the stretch. That was the main reason I tried to come back,” Span said. “Yeah, for my free agent year, but also to help this ballclub. So it was a tough decision, trying to come back and also shutting it down. But all-around just tough. I worked my butt off to get to this point.”
In all likelihood, Span will not return to the Nationals next year. The team will likely make him a qualifying offer, which ensures that if he leaves Washington will receive a compensation pick. But no player has ever taken a qualifying offer, a one-year deal, and Span will likely hit the market looking for a longer term deal. With Michael A. Taylor ready in waiting, the Nationals do not seem likely to bid. Span said he didn’t process the fact that Wednesday’s game might be his last in a Nationals uniform initially. After a few days, he did.
“It hadn’t been entering my mind, reading everybody’s well wishes and seeing people on Twitter appreciating me for what I brought to this organization on and off the field, just a great effort, has made me sad,” Span said. “I’ve enjoyed my three years here. I feel like coming here kind of resurrected my career. Coming from Minnesota, this trade was probably the best thing for me at the time. I’ve learned a lot here from the coaching staff and my teammates.”
Span said he’ll poke his head back in the clubhouse a few times after surgery, but he isn’t sure how mobile he’ll be, and therefore how often he can be around. He said he won’t disappear, wants to “shake everybody’s hand,” just in case his three-season Nationals tenure is at an end. If it is, it ended because Span couldn’t play the way he wanted to with his hip in this condition.
“The toughest thing for me was just doing what I do. doing what this team pays me to do: being dynamic, being aggressive. When I was on the field, that was difficult,” Span said. “The first game I came and got the standing ovation. That was the best worst feeling ever because the fans were happy I was back, but deep down I knew I couldn’t give them what I normally could bring to this game and this ballclub.
“I had a couple people tell me ‘Oh, you looked good that last game.’ Yeah, I looked good, but I didn’t feel good. So at the end of the day, I had to do what was best for my future.”