When the Washington Nationals have a home game, Adam Eaton hobbles into the clubhouse each afternoon, ready for his activity for the day. He still has his locker, and the men around him are still his teammates. They notice when he ditches the scooter he used to ride for the hitch-in-his-step stride he’s left with now. They are polite and supportive. Eaton is jovial and jokes back.
This should be Eaton’s home. Yet he is a foreigner.
“Guys are in the fire,” Eaton said. “They look at you as you’re dead. It’s the dead list. That’s it. You’re not helping the team. You’re not really helping anybody. You feel dead. You’re not even there. Like a ghost.”
For those of us in the stands or on the couch, baseball’s disabled list is transactional. So-and-so is hurt. So-and-so gets called up. So-and-so goes on rehab. So-and-so is activated. So-and-so gets sent on a rehab assignment. It’s part of the rhythm of summer.
For the men who live it, it’s hell.
“Not fun,” Trea Turner said. “Sucks. Look up those two in the dictionary. That’s it.”
“I don’t like it both ways,” Jayson Werth said. “When I’m on the DL, I don’t like being here. I don’t want to be seen. And when I’m playing, I don’t want to see DL guys.”
The Nationals are poised to run away with the National League East not only because they have a good team (yeah, yeah, the bullpen, I know) but because their division is lousy: The New York Mets are a daily drama and the Atlanta Braves in some sort of rebuild and the Miami Marlins ready to sell and the Philadelphia Phillies the worst team in the big leagues.
The one issue that could mess with Washington’s pursuit of a fourth division title in six years is the issue that sends coaches and executives looking for a wooden locker on which to knock: health.
The team is without its Opening Day center fielder (Eaton), left fielder (Werth) and shortstop (Turner) — not to mention potential closers Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley. But because the lead over Atlanta entering the final series of the first half is 9 1/2 games, Nats fans can focus on the progress of the replacements: Michael A. Taylor in center, Brian Goodwin in left and some combination of Stephen Drew, Wilmer Difo and Adrian Sanchez at short.
The injured players, though, can focus only on themselves — their maladies, their progress and the vast stretches of time left to stare into space and consider both. These summer days, man, they can be long and empty.
“I don’t have an existence,” Eaton said. “I go to the training room. What they tell me to do, that’s what I do. That’s the most difficult part. You don’t help the team win. There’s really no way to help them win.”
Eaton’s woes are exacerbated for several reasons. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee April 28, when he had been with the team for all of 23 games. He hardly knew his new team, his new fans. The team’s season remains full of promise. Eaton’s season is over.
“When you’re on long-term DL, it’s even more mentally demanding than it is physically demanding,” Eaton said. “When you go home, that mental instability of the team playing, or they go on the road and I’m watching at home, not being able to help them win, it sucks.”
There is, too, a clear awkwardness for the injured in their own clubhouse. Don’t mess with someone who’s hot. Don’t offer too much advice to someone who’s cold. Don’t get in the way. And don’t talk about being hurt to guys who are healthy.
Is a strained groin or a broken wrist contagious? Just might be.
“Like we’re lepers or something,” Werth said. “For me, I don’t want people to see me when I’m on the DL, because I don’t want them to get those thoughts. And then when I’m playing, I see people on the DL, I don’t want to think about being there.”
Werth, at 38, has made more disabled list stints than he can remember; the foot injury that he’s rehabbing in Florida is just the latest. Turner, who is out because of a broken wrist, turned 24 last week. This is his first full big league season.
So there is advice to give him about how to handle the situation when you normally would be preparing for a game (“Drink a lot of milk, take magnesium, take potassium,” Manager Dusty Baker said), as well as after the first pitch is thrown (“You have to play the game in your mind and what you would imagine doing in this situation,” Baker said). When Werth was in Washington and the team had a home game, he often would hang around the clubhouse during the games because that’s the time the training and medical staff was free enough to work with him. Eaton comes to the ballpark, gets something to eat, gets his treatment in during the afternoon and goes home to watch the game on the couch — sometimes.
“I have to admit: I don’t watch every game,” Eaton said. “It’s very difficult because you just want to be a fan and watch, but at the same time, it hurts your heart.”
When the team’s on the road, Werth finds himself wandering through his house in McLean, the TV always on. He will see the inning, the score, the count. When the situation gets tense and tight, he locks in.
“I’m hanging by the moment,” he said. “I don’t have a lot else to do.”
At some point after next week’s all-star break, Werth will return, back in left field. Turner’s turn likely will come in August. Both will read as lines in the fine print: “Washington Nationals — Activated OF Jayson Werth; optioned Player X to Class AAA Syracuse.” Read it and move on. But for the players who live this time in baseball purgatory, who are part of the team but ostracized anyway, coming off the disabled list is nothing short of returning from the dead.