When the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team known for groundbreaking firsts, take the field for their home opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday afternoon, the $2.15 billion ownership deal spearheaded by Magic Johnson will still be creating buzz throughout Dodger Stadium, but it won’t be the only headline.
Sue Falsone will be making history.
The 37-year-old Falsone is the only female ever to hold the title of head athletic trainer in major professional sports. And while she prefers to focus on the players, frequent reminders of this accomplishment are everywhere.
“From day to day, I don’t really think about it, but every once in a while it hits me,” said Falsone. “[The other day] at a game someone was calling my name. I just assumed it was a friend, but it was a fan whose daughter wants to get into sports medicine. He said she has two Dodgers pictures in her room, one of Andre Either and one of me. That really hit home. Sometimes I get letters from girls who want to do this, so that’s always really special. I want other women to have this opportunity.”
In the male-dominated world of professional sports, understanding why female trainers are rare is something Falsone knows will continue to be a challenge.
“I’m really not sure why you don’t see more women in these positions because when you look at high school and college, even Division I schools, there are female physical therapists everywhere,” said Falsone.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., where hockey and football are king, the road to working with some of baseball’s greatest (she treated pitcher Curt Schilling after his 2004 ankle surgery) seems all the more unlikely. But Falsone admits she grew to love baseball after her apprenticeship under Mark Verstegen, founder of Athletes’ Performance, one of the nation’s top performance training facilities.
Under Verstegen’s tutelage, Falsone honed her skills and worked with every type of baseball-related injury. Asked about the most challenging, she thinks for a moment.
“We see our share of shoulders and elbows, but for me, I treat a lot of back and rib issues,” said Falsone. “It’s difficult because those injuries make everything hard — running, throwing, rotating, so it tends to be the most difficult injury to treat.”
In a sport where players are expected to remain healthy for 162 games in roughly 180 days, the goal during Spring Training is to get players ready for the long road ahead.
“A lot of what we focus on is recovery and regeneration,” said Falsone. “It’s not only performance based, but to be able to survive such a long season. If the players don’t feel good it doesn’t matter how strong or fit they are, they can’t perform at the highest level.”
That lengthy season doesn’t leave a lot of down time. No rest for the weary. A concept Falsone knows all too well.
“My day typically starts at noon when players start to come in for their rehab or workouts, and then around 4 p.m. we’ll have batting practice,” she says. “After that, dinner, then typically a 7 p.m. game, followed by any treatment needed after the game. I usually get home by midnight if everything goes smoothly.”
With a demanding schedule and constant road trips (she travels everywhere with the team), there is little time for life outside of baseball.
“It’s a huge commitment,” said Falsone. “For me, there really aren’t days off. If a friend gets married in the summer, I’m not going to be able to make it. But we’re all in it together.”
In addition to the Dodgers medical staff she considers family, Falsone credits her mother as an important inspirational figure.
“My mom is number one,” she says. “She dealt with my dad’s death seven years ago when he was extremely sick. Just watching her and how she took care of him and her strength and ability to face it all was huge for me.”
Whatever sacrifices and challenges lay ahead, Falsone is passionate about her role and is ready to face them head on.
“My goal is getting these guys to feel good, given the level of performance they need to have every day,” said Falsone. “It’s not good enough for them to just feel OK. Every injury is like a puzzle. What is the optimal combination to make a player feel better? Just figuring out that puzzle is what gets me fired up. Injuries are not going down. We’re either going to succeed or we’re going to fail, but we’re not going to be mediocre.”