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BEST FOOT FORWARD : After a Frustrating and Painful (Yet Productive) Season, Salmon Is All Right in Right Again

DIANE PUCIN

March 30, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

TEMPE, Ariz. — Tim Salmon's days began with a grimace. Some days he would want to scream, really scream, because the pain was so bad.

The first step of the day was the worst, Salmon lifting his left foot out of bed and putting it on the floor, then putting weight on it. That first step every morning, from April until nearly October, was agony.

Sometimes the pain made him sweat. Sometimes his eyes watered. Sometimes it just caused him to exhale heavily. Those were the good days.

"What Tim went through last year, I don't think a lot of athletes would have gone through," says Marci Salmon, his wife. "It's hard to make people understand the pain because you couldn't see it. There wasn't a cast or surgery or something tangible. But I saw what he went through every day and I know. What Tim did last year was a pretty amazing thing."

In the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles last April 22, Salmon was rounding first base after hitting a home run for the Angels and the pain struck. A searing, ugly feeling on the bottom of his left foot. The foot had been hurting before, but not like this and Salmon left that game to have an MRI.

The diagnosis was a strained left plantar fascia. This sounds so harmless, so innocuous. The plantar fascia is a ligament in the foot that supports the arch and what's the big deal about that?

So, your foot hurts a little, right? Salmon smiles at that description, for that's what went through his head. There was one stretch on the 15-day disabled list that ended on May 9 and from then on, he played baseball almost every day. He played and yet he didn't play.

He was no longer able to play right field. He could only be the designated hitter, a job Salmon was barely able to swallow. But it was all he was capable of, seeing as how every time he put down his left foot he wanted to yelp.

Salmon didn't know how to act as a designated hitter.

"After every at-bat, I'd run back into the clubhouse and ride the bike or swing off the tee," he says.

It was as if he was trying to work up a sweat, like the other guys.

"Finally, I called up Paul Molitor and asked him how he did it, how he became a good DH," Salmon says. "Paul told me it was simple, that I should just sit on the bench and watch the game. That made a difference, but still, it was hard to feel a part of the team. You'd feel like you couldn't say anything in the clubhouse in front of guys going all out in the field."

And as much as the pain was a drain, so was the mental anguish. Doctors told Salmon that the only cure for his foot would be surgery, which would end the season, of course.

But the surgery wasn't urgent. He would not become a cripple or become any less likely to make a full recovery by continuing to play. So whether Salmon played or not was up to him and to his own tolerance for pain.

"I learned a lot about myself last season," Salmon says. He is leaning against a wall. His arms are crossed and one leg is crossed over the other. Yes, Salmon is standing with all his weight on his left foot.

"What I learned is that I could stretch my limits of tolerance," he says. "Honestly, I wouldn't have thought before last year that I could have made it through the season with the pain I had. But I did and I'm kind of proud of that."

Salmon, 30, is starting his seventh season in the major leagues. In 1998, playing on one leg, he hit .300. He led the Angels in home runs with 26, sacrifice flies with 10, walks with 90, and in slugging percentage, .533.

He also scored 84 runs, each at a cost. For as the season progressed, Salmon's torn ligament tore a little more. From 10% torn to 20% to 50% to 75% to nearly 100%. Had the tear become complete, Salmon's season would have ended. And had the Angels ever fallen out of the American League West race, he would have ended his season.

"I was nearly ready to shut down at the All-Star break," he says, "but then we were hanging around. Five games out, six games out, four games out, so I decided to hang in there. Every day I'd say to Marci, 'We're still in it, we're still in it, I've got to go to the park.'

"And then other guys would get hurt--[Dave] Hollins, [Darin] Erstad. I'd look at the bench and see the injured guys and I'd say to Marci, 'I'd better keep going.' "

Marci says, "There were times when I wished the Angels would just drop out of the race and I know Tim did too. It was so hard for him. The decision was all his. If it had been cut and dried, you know, something torn or broken so the doctor says that you have to stop right now. But it wasn't like that. It was all on Tim and how much he was willing to put up with and how much responsibility he felt to the team."

As hard as the day-to-day baseball grind was, it was more discouraging to go home and have to say no when his daughter, Callie, wanted a piggyback ride or his son, Jacob, wanted to be tossed in the air.

"I couldn't pick up the kids or really play with them," Salmon says.

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