Reimold looks to shed 'injury-prone' label
Neck healed and out of options, outfielder looks to be force in Orioles' lineup
SARASOTA, Fla. -- He had hit long home runs, the kind that you hear off the bat before rocketing undoubtedly onto the other side of outfield walls, but this wasn't one of them. Nolan Reimold wasn't sure where the 1-1, 90-mph sinker he got a hold of from Angels righty Jerome Williams would end up, and he wasn't planning on watching.
Physically, Reimold couldn't.
One of Baltimore's more reserved players, there was nothing unusual that April 20 night about Reimold dropping his bat and running down to first base without celebrating a two-run seventh-inning homer that cut the Orioles' deficit to three runs. Only upon close inspection of the replay can you see him cock his head several fractions to the left and stop, as the club's hottest hitter raced down to first base instead. It was easier that way, because the pain in Reimold's neck, which had started three days earlier, was only tolerable when he looked straight ahead.
Reimold wouldn't exactly see where the ball landed until he rounded first base, but the left fielder felt the aftermath of that swing the rest of the night. It would lock up his trapezius muscle in the outfield -- particularly on the left side, where he started to get tingly and lose feeling -- and later keep him awake in his hotel room, unable to roll over despite some strategic pillow placement.
"I would wake up in the morning and go to the field, and every day I would think, 'How the heck am I going to play today?'" said Reimold, who eventually had four pieces of a ruptured disk in his neck removed and the vertebrae fused back together as part of a season-ending procedure in June. "And by game time, I just played."
The player who could barely move his head carried the O's offense in the first month of the season. Reimold had five extra-base hits and four RBIs in the first week's worth of games before he went soaring into the left-field stands to catch Alejandro De Aza's popup in the seventh inning on April 16. The play left Reimold's ribs a little sore and his upper back a little cramped up. Reimold, who had homered that night and helped Baltimore stage a late-game comeback, thought maybe he was dehydrated, so he cut his postgame workout short.
Even when the rib and back soreness morphed into overnight neck spasms, Reimold stayed on the field, playing three of the Orioles' next four games. Originally diagnosed with a slight bulging disk, Reimold woke up early to visit a chiropractor recommended by J.J. Hardy before playing the Halos. Reimold and the O's were playing well, and besides, it was a big year for the then 28-year-old to show the organization he could be a mainstay. Reimold arrived at Spring Training last year healthy and poised for a breakout season, with no real competition for the left-field job and past personal performance and injury issues seemingly in the rearview mirror. It was his year.
"Yeah, that might have played into it," Reimold, who hit .306/.342/.629 in the nine games he played hurt, said of his hesitation to sit out. "I didn't want to get off the field. I thought if I could play, then what was going to happen? I had no idea that this was going to happen."
This being a ruptured disk, suffered on Reimold's final regular-season swing April 30, that would require fusion surgery, leaving doctors initially uncertain of permanent nerve damage and if Reimold would regain all his strength. This being a long, tedious stretch of rehab, the first few weeks in which Reimold -- instructed to not even lift a gallon of milk -- would wake up with headaches and spend his days on the couch. While the Orioles were shocking the baseball world, eventually storming to the organization's first playoff appearance since 1997, Reimold was watching it on television.
Now out of options, Reimold finds himself again tasked with proving he can be a go-to guy.
"It's not unfair to say that he's been injury-prone, in a way that Cal Ripken [Jr.] hasn't, but he's super tough," special assistant Brady Anderson said of Reimold, who played with a frayed left Achilles tendon in 2009, not shutting it down completely until mid-September, with the effects of the injury spilling over into the following season. "He's had [some] really bad injuries.
"Sometimes injury-prone and softness are equated as the same, and Nolan is not soft. He got hit in the face last year [during Spring Training with a 95-mph fastball by the Rays' Alex Cobb] and nobody even talks about it. Some people, their career is over after that, they are not the same. Two days later, people had forgotten that it happened. He had a bad Achilles injury and he played with it, and you look at his neck injury and he's way ahead of schedule. He's still not back to where he wants to be, but he will be. I think he's going to be better than ever."
Reimold still bristles at the term "injury-prone," a label no player wants and one that he has done everything in his power to avoid. Reimold was noticeably limited through Spring Training in 2010 coming off the Achilles procedure, but the neck injury was easier to guise. If Reimold just kept hitting and not move his head, he figured he could tolerate the spasms, until his final swing in New York forced a trip to the disabled list. Even then Reimold, who had several epidural injections to try to calm the swelling in the area, kept pushing to come back.
"It was about that time when things were supposed to click back in and get better," said Reimold, who was rehabbing at the team's spring facility in Sarasota. "But I went down there and I was working out and stuff, and that's when I really noticed, 'Where is my [left] shoulder going?' It's starting to disappear. I knew that wasn't good, but I didn't think too much of it at the time. ... I didn't think my career was in jeopardy, because I didn't think it was what it was. I was under the impression it was a slight bulging disk, just like everyone else.
"When I had my moment of 'uh-oh' [was] when I went to see Dr. [Ziya] Gokaslan, and he told me he didn't know if all my strength was going to come back [after the surgery], because he hadn't been in there. It scared me when he said that."
Reimold's surgery, performed by Gokaslan on June 25 at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, went exceptionally well and is similar to the procedure NFL quarterback Peyton Manning underwent. In Reimold's case, there was no damage to the nerve root and there was every reason to believe he would regain all of the strength in his left arm, which has already gotten stronger in the short time he's been in Sarasota this spring.
There are no restrictions on what Reimold, who was one of many position players who reported to camp early, is able to do. He has been taking batting practice and impressed first-base coach Wayne Kirby with his fielding work in Saturday's first full-squad workout.
"I was really surprised. I thought he was going to get a little tired, but he went through the whole drill," Kirby, who called Reimold "a beast" in the outfield, said of the practice, which culminated with 45 minutes of nonstop work. "When you have surgery, and it's a major surgery, and you come back this early, we know you've been working. So he isn't fooling us. We understand what he's been doing, what he's been through. We know who he is; these guys in here know who he is."
Added Anderson: "You shouldn't mistake his quiet demeanor. ... You should still understand how mentally tough he is, how physically tough he is. He's a gamer. He just hasn't put it all together yet for an extended stretch, but he's going to."
The Orioles didn't add a middle-of-the-order bat this offseason, and Reimold could be the guy to help bolster an offense that struggled at times, particularly in the postseason. Since he debuted in May 2009 with the organization that selected him in the second round of the '05 First-Year Player Draft, Reimold has shown flashes of brilliance, but he has yet to play a full season in the big leagues.
"I have a lot of things to make up for," said Reimold, who admits he should have shut things down when he first felt those neck spasms. "I still have progress to make with my arm. I still have to get ready for the season. I've got a lot of things that I can use for motivation. I'll never leave the field early. I'll always go and do my workouts, get my work in and get ready to play."
As long as he stays healthy, Reimold, who plans to be ready for the team's first Grapefruit League game Saturday vs. the Twins at 1:05 p.m. ET, will be part of the O's Opening Day roster. He hasn't needed to take things slow this spring, particularly with his left arm getting stronger and stronger.
How Reimold is used with Nate McLouth, who took over the left-field duties for the team down the stretch, remains to be seen.
"I don't want to use that p-word right now," manager Buck Showalter said when asked about implementing a possible platoon, which could have Reimold see some time at designated hitter.
"I do have a long memory of what Nolan was getting ready to do for us last year, and how he got hurt. So he's going to get a very patient approach. He can be a big player for us this year, something that a lot of people have forgotten about."
Certainly no one in the Orioles' clubhouse.
"Ooooh, scary," Kirby said of what a full year of Reimold can do for the O's this season. "Yeah, scary, scary. If anybody can do [it without missing a beat], he can do it, because he's a quiet, tough kid."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.