Cameo: Richie Bancells

Orioles head athletic trainer

By Amy Mulvihill - April 2014

Interview with Richie Bancells, Orioles head athletic trainer

Orioles head athletic trainer

By Amy Mulvihill - April 2014

-David Colwell

This is your 30th year as the Orioles athletic trainer? What career events stand out for you?

Yeah, when people say it, it doesn’t really ring as 30 years, if you know what I mean. It seems like it has gone by so quickly and so many things have taken place. So when I hear the number I kind of step back and think, ‘Gosh, it really doesn’t feel like that.’

I mean, first, I think I’ve just been blessed to be doing something I love. I think there’s nothing better than that. I’ve been blessed to be two things: in a professional that I love as an athletic trainer and around the game I love, baseball, because I played it growing up as a kid and later.

As far as events go, I mean, gosh, it’s really hard. I mean, obviously, whenever we’re in the post-season those are really things that stick out in your mind because you had a successful season, and a lot of times that translates into you had a successful season in terms of not too many injuries to get there, so that’s kind of good.

Um, other events . . . actually, this is not really an on-the-field event, but when I was able to go to Cooperstown for Cal Ripken Jr.’s induction ceremony and to hear him mention me in his acceptance speech was kind of really pretty special. It was kind of emotionally overwhelming for me. So, I mean, there’s a lot of events, and it’s hard to pick one, but certainly those would rank near the top.

I understand that you and Cal are very close. 

Yeah, in many ways, and it’s probably because in 1978 in Bluefield, West Virginia, which was our rookie ball team at the time, his first day was my first day.

Aw, really? Do you remember how you met? 

Not really. He was just another one of the guys on the team. I’m sure we just met when they reported, you know, in the clubhouse. I’d love to say I remember 1978 clearly, but I’d be lying if I did. We became friends both professionally and personally, really. I mean, our families sort of grew up together and when you’re families are growing up, you talk about things other than baseball. We used to spend a lot of time talking about parenting and the kids and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, we did become very close friends that way, and our friendship has remained. Sometimes we just spend a lot of time on the phone talking to each other.

In some ways, there must have been a lot of pressure on you to help him maintain the streak. Obviously, if he ever got injured, he was going to miss a game. Did he have any close calls? 

I mean there were. I mean, you know one in particular was a sprained ankle way early on but the streak wasn’t really an issue then. One was a knee injury later—gosh, I’m bad on years—when we had a little incident on the field with the Seattle Mariners that didn’t go well, but he played through it. But, you know what? Well, first let me answer the question in this way: No, there wasn’t really any pressure that way. The streak wasn’t really any pressure, at least for me it wasn’t, because, when you’re inside this arena and an injury happens, I don’t think about how much a player makes, I don’t think about streaks, none of those things, I’m just concentrating on what I can do to best get that player back on the field and healthy.

Now, as far as Cal was concerned, he was probably one of the easiest to work with just because he was one of the first players—and this goes back to minor league days—to ever quiz me and ask me about the body and how it functioned and how he could keep it in condition. And he did a great job of that. We used to talk about that stuff all the time. So, that, along with what I would say is his high skill level, kind of kept him away injuries that a lot of guys get, you know, so . . . that was kind of long-winded, I’m sorry.

No! It’s okay! 

Am I explaining this right? When you’re inside, you don’t feel the external pressure that people think you do because you’re so focused and concentrating on doing the job at hand. And during that time, I would never think about it unless someone else brought it up.

And part of my philosophy has always been, there are 25 players on the team. So, however you want to rank them, I treat number 25 the same way as I treat whoever someone would consider are the number-one and number-two players, you know? Because, in our world, I see them all as someone with an injury or an illness and you need to take care of it. Everyone deserves the same kind of health care—oh, I shouldn’t say that word in this day and age! So that’s kind of how I’ve approached it. So maybe that’s why I don’t feel that external stuff.

What was the most serious injury you’ve ever come across?

Well, I know you’re probably not going to like this answer, but I usually answer that question this way: The most serious injury for me is the one that’s right in front of me at that time.Because that’s where my focus is at the time. Obviously, I’ve had things like pitchers get hit in the head. You know, Mike Mussina way back, he took a line drive in the head. It ended up looking worse than what it really ended up being. Those kinds of things when you have collisions and guys are down and they’re not getting up. Those are not good. And obviously, the one that everyone’s thinking about is Manny Machado. So, in my mind, it’s hard to sift back through the files and say, ‘What was the worst or least’ because I really, truly mean this in the heart: The most serious for me is the one I’m dealing with at that point.

Speaking of Manny Machado, how’s he doing? 

Well, you know, right after surgery, he underwent rehab, and it was a program the doctor and we had all put together and he followed it very well. He’s been a very, very diligent hard worker, very Cal-like in many ways, you could say.And his rehab really went well, and he got here [to spring training] and he’s really on what we call a functional level now. He’s doing a lot of baseball activities. And we’re doing some things running-drill wise to help correct his gait a little bit and prevent anything like that from happening again. But he’s progressing very well. He works very hard, but he’s an absolute joy to work with. So, it’s coming along very, very well.

Can we expect to see him in the starting lineup on Opening Day? 

Ha, you know what, I don’t commit that way. I’ve never thought it’s fair to the player, fair to the organization, actually maybe even fair to the fans and to me, to say, ‘This is when you’re going to be ready,’ because people in rehab progress at different levels and different speeds. And with a guy like Manny, or any rehab, every day is a new day for me to evaluate how we’re doing and what we’re going to do that day and how we’re going to progress. Some people progress quickly and others are slower. I can just tell you that Manny is doing very well, and I don’t think there’s going to be any extreme delay in his getting back, but the most important thing is to get him back on the field safely.

I read that you got injured playing baseball as a kid and that’s when you decided you wanted to be a trainer. True? 

Wow, you really did some digging! Actually, it was in high school. It was later than that a little bit. I was a pitcher. When I think about it back then, the other thing is that I always had a fascination for anatomy. I probably drove my mom nuts because I was always bringing animals and fish home and cutting them up and looking at them.

She was probably wondering if you were a serial killer.

Yeah, right?! So when I did get hurt . . . I started playing in college but the elbow kind of preventing me from getting any further, and I sort of had an interest in what was going on—I really didn’t think about it at the time—but I had this other interest in anatomy and the two things kind of combined themselves in a way. And, at the same time, the profession of athletic training was kind of exploding. So I had some mentors who kind of blew me in that direction and said, ‘Hey, this might be something you’re really interested in.’ So, yeah, at a very early, young age I just kind of kept pursuing it, and kept pursuing it, and finding a place to go to school to pursue it, and just on from there. I’m not going to lie to you, it was absolutely sheer luck that I ended up working in the game that I really love. It worked out great.

I read that you treat the training room as a sanctuary for the players. 

I’ve always said, ‘There’s something magical when you put a Band-Aid on a person.’ And that’s obviously a metaphor of sorts. There becomes a bond between you. These players have a lot of pressures on them all the time. They’re under a lot of scrutiny all the time. And I’ve always enjoyed the fact that they can feel like the training room is a place where they can come not only to get treated for an injury, but a place to come and relax, if they need to and talk. Sometimes you find out a lot about them and they gain a lot of trust in you. So yeah, there can be a lot of times when that training room is full of players and no one really needs anything in terms of treatment, but we’re just there kind of talking and shooting the breeze, and you can see them relax a little bit. And I know there are other places where that is not allowed. I know there are other places where, the only time you can be in the training room is if you’re being treated for an injury. I’m not like that. I like to feel like I’m treating the whole person, in a way, not just physically but spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. It’s a place where they can come and relax, and it feels relaxed that way.

So you’re a little bit of a father figure to some of the players? 

[Laughs] Uh, you know, I’m probably of that age. A lot of these players are closer to my younger kids’ age than to me, so. . . and we don’t exactly listen to or agree on to the same music that’s played in the training room all the time. It’s funny you say that because a player not long ago—I mean just days ago or something, and I don’t even know how this conversation came up—he said to me, ‘Well you’re like a dad to us,’ and I thought, ‘Whoa.’ And then I also heard, ‘And you’re like a grandfather to us,’ and I said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’ But I guess, in many ways, that’s true. I’m proud of the fact that they feel they can come to me with even off-the-field issues that I can help them with in any way possible. I kind of take pride in the fact that they’ve always had that trust in me that they can basically talk about anything, and if I can help them, I’m going to help them.

I’m sure they’re happy to have somebody there to talk to who has some experience. 

I hope so. It’s not a whole lot different than parenting, really, in many ways.

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