Freshman Andrew Kirchmeier says that after suffering a back injury during baseball’s indoor practices Winter Term, he was forced to push past his limits.
“I was swinging [during a Friday practice] and then I kind of just tweaked my back. It was just an irritating pain, not really a sharp pain or anything like that, so I just kind of put up with it,” Kirchmeier said. “But then the following Monday after not getting any rest, I had to throw a bullpen.”
A normal bullpen session for him, Kirchmeier said, usually ranged from 15-25 pitches with game-like intensity, and around 10 warm-up pitches. Kirchmeier claims that for some reason, this bullpen session was different, and head coach Jami Isaacson wanted him to pitch closer to 40 pitches in the full bullpen session.
“After about 25 I tell [Issacson] my back is killing me, and he tells me to throw 10 more. I throw 10 more and [say] ‘Alright it’s really killing me, I gotta stop.’ He says, ‘Alright, five more and then you’re done,’” Kirchmeier said.
Following that specific practice, Kirchmeier said his back tightened up to the point that he struggled to walk back to his dorm room.
“I was in excruciating pain, went and collapsed on my bag and sat there for about an hour, [I] couldn’t move much,” Kirchmeier said.
According to Isaacson, warm-up pitches are not all supposed to be full effort. Though he did not watch Kirchmeier warm up on this day, Isaacson was waiting to watch him during the bullpen session in order to coach him on his technique.
“I wanted to make sure once he was ready that I was the one instructing his bullpen so that I could correct his mechanics so that his back issue would not persist,” Isaacson said.
According to the team health policy explained to the team before the start of each season by Isaacson and head athletic trainer Scott Sunderland, athletes are to meet with their team trainer for any injury they sustain.
“They are told that the training room … they are your primary caretaker and whether you have a sniffle or a bone … coming out of their leg, that we would like you to go to the training room first,” Isaacson said.
To Sunderland, this system makes the most sense because the licensed trainers are always available to the team and its players.
“That’s been the policy a long time. You know, we’re the people on the ground, we’re at practice, we’re at the games,” Sunderland said. “It just makes sense that we’d be the ones they’d access and use.”
At least once a week, Sunderland’s office provides Isaacson with a full injury report that lists players and their injuries treated during that week, how many times they came in for assistance, and the trainer’s recommendation for the player’s participation in practice. Trainers are instructed to record each time an athlete comes in to the office, whether for help with a cold or a more serious physical injury. However, Kirchmeier believes that this system did not work properly when he was struggling with his back injury this season, and he explained this recently in a meeting with Athletic Director Daniella Irle and Sunderland.
“I talked to Scott and Daniella … and [Scott] showed me the report, and it had registered that I had went one time,” Kirchmeier said. “I went four, maybe three times with [Associate Head Athletic Trainer] Shaina [Sewick], who’s not the baseball [trainer], so I don’t think she wrote anything down. And then I think three times with [baseball’s trainer] Mike [Montes], so he didn’t write down two.”
One time, Kirchmeier said he was told by the team’s trainer that he didn’t have time to treat Kirchmeier’s back injury before that day’s practice. Kirchmeier admits that he arrived in the training room less than a half hour before the start of the day’s practice, although the team is told to arrive to the trainer more than 30 minutes before practice. Kirchmeier’s decision to sit out of certain workout routines the team went through together did not always go over well with Isaacson.
“Squatting, benching, all that stuff really hurt my back so I decided not to. That made Coach I not too happy. He thought I should do it anyways,” Kirchmeier said. “He never got the injury report saying I was injured, so technically I just did this all on my own.”
Irle agrees with Isaacson and Sunderland, saying that players need to take more responsibility for the treatment they need as a result of injury.
“If I had a back injury that’s bad enough that I can’t move for a day, five or six treatments is not sufficient, right? I should be going in every single day,” Irle said. “And who the trainer is almost irrelevant É that’s why we have a staff.”
Senior Tyler Price, who played on the baseball team for three years before quitting, thought that Isaacson and Sunderland’s reasons weren’t exactly as they said.
“[An outside doctor would] keep you off the field longer, they would give you more severe diagnoses, they’d do more MRIs, they would do more X Rays,” Price said.
Sunderland disagrees with the way Price remembers the way the policies were passed along to the players, arguing that athletes can be treated responsibly and efficiently if they were to consistently visit the trainer’s office when an injury flared up.
“I think that may have [been] what’s gotten lost a little bit this year is is that people wanted to go different directions and do different things,” Sunderland said. “A number of cases weren’t getting [consistent treatment] because people weren’t being responsive and compliant with the athletic training room here on-site. They were doing other things.”
Senior Alec Auston also played on the baseball team at Knox for his first three years but decided to stop during Fall Term of this academic year. He says the trainers provided great service for the nagging injuries but were not well equipped to handle more serious injuries. Like Kirchmeier, Auston recalled situations in the past when his teammates were not referred properly to doctors or were told not to receive an MRI or X Ray.
“You’re only allowed to see a[n outside] medical professional if the trainer thinks [the injury] is worthy of a medical professional,” Auston said.
This decision to refer the players with more serious injuries, Auston believes, did not always happen in time to recognize the severity of the injury before it got worse.
To Irle, if the player is not taking responsibility over the situation and visiting the trainer often enough, there is not much the trainer can do.
“Health care is kind of a two-way street. We can only help them [injured players] when they’re there and the amount of time you’re willing to put into it determines how quickly you’ll return to play and how successful the rehab will be,” Irle said.
Sunderland sees a communication issue between the coaching and training staffs as the cause of the growing confusion over the policy.
“It’s certainly something that we’ve identified the problem and gonna work on for next year,” Sunderland said. “From my perch it didn’t feel like we were seeing the athletes that we should be seeing in [the training room from] baseball this year and I wasn’t sure why that was going on.”
To Isaacson, part of this issue may be because of the massive size of the freshman class, which makes up around half of the roster.
“I addressed the whole freshmen class and said, ‘We’re not doing the right things in terms of you seeing the proper people at the proper times so that we have the proper knowledge to take care of you, to make sure that you progress properly,’” Isaacson said.
But to Price, this is just a symptom of a larger issue on the baseball team: the team culture. Part of this, Price said, is that he believes certain players received special treatment from the coaching staff. This, he thinks, is part of a larger communication issue that is present in the program, both on the physical health and the team mentality sides.
“People who play every single day, people who do the most, or at least have the most expected of them, they get different treatment,” Price said.
This led to situations that both Price and Auston brought up of some of the best players on the team publicly yelling at the entire team or spiking a batting helmet in frustration so hard one time that it broke. Though these outbursts would occasionally cause the coaching staff to threaten the next person who did the same with a benching, Price and Auston say those threats never applied if the next person to have an outburst was a star player. This type of behavior remained into this season, as Kirchmeier saw much of the same during his year on the team.
“The culture that we have here is nothing like what a college should be. I’m fairly confident my eighth grade travel ball team had a better culture than this team,” Kirchmeier said. “Helmets get thrown, gloves get thrown. One of the players broke his helmet throwing it, borrowed a freshman’s helmet and broke that helmet.”
For Auston, the negative team culture and lack of communication added up to a disappointing experience as a college baseball player, which brought him to 18 total years playing baseball.
“I’d say probably the most miserable years of baseball I ever played were at Knox just because the team culture was so depressing,” Auston said. “And then the culture just ends up eating away at you to the point that there’s just players who don’t want to play anymore, or they transfer.”
While Irle agrees that the baseball team’s culture must improve, she believes Isaacson is up to the task.
“As far as the team culture, I think the team’s gonna have to work on that,” Irle said. “Some of that I’m not sure [Isaacson] was always aware of … I do think Coach I is willing and able to help with that now that he’s more aware of that.”
Even with extra attention being paid to the baseball team’s culture, Irle knows that it can take time for a culture shift to occur.
Isaacson, who has been coaching the Knox baseball team since 2000, plans on putting together a special handbook for baseball players, recruits and their parents this summer to ensure his players understand the team policies.
“I’ve got to learn to understand how this millennial generation communicates,” Isaacson said. “I’ve got to have [team policies] written down because that’s how they process, that’s how they chew on information.”
For Irle, the focus on the baseball team moving forward will be a bit of a unique situation in order to ensure that the issues from this season do not return next year. Part of this includes better communication all around the program, which will help improve the culture.
“We really don’t see this problem in most of our other sports, which is why we’re going to key in on the culture within baseball,” Irle said. “But I think it’s also partly incumbent on the athlete to actually listen to what we’re saying, not to make assumptions, not to ‘well this is what I heard so it must be true.’”
Sunderland is dedicated to figuring out what went wrong on the trainers’ side of things this season so that the athletes at Knox are fully aware of how valuable of a resource the trainers should be.
“It’s obviously painful, nobody wants to hear they didn’t do it the right way or are suspected of doing it the wrong way,” Sunderland said. “The only reason why we’re here downstairs [in the trainer’s room] is to help injured athletes and there was that disconnect this year, so we’re going to put ourselves to fixing that and correcting that going forward.
Emily Mosher contributed reporting to this story.