Royal Pain Meets Its Match
Most of us understand that bad things happen in threes.
The Grandview Triangle. The band Hanson: three brothers, three chords. And the unhappy triad.
That’s how Nick Kenney describes the end of his football career in high school. The Royals' head athletic trainer suffered a knee injury where his ACL, MCL and meniscus said goodbye to each other.
"I was playing linebacker and had outside contain on a toss sweep,” he recalls. “Once I planted, I felt the pop. Then a wide receiver hit me..."
Kenney's athletic life was altered and his future career defined. After playing fall baseball his freshman year at Wilmington (Ohio) College, Kenney quit cold turkey to follow a path dedicated to healing others, much like those who helped him after the triad trauma.
A MISSION TO HEAL
Kenney at spring training with shortstop Alcides Escobar
"I've always been interested in the human body and how it moves,” he says. “I put a lot of faith in my physical therapists."
Major League Baseball ultimately became the beneficiary. Kenney twice has earned a share of the Dick Martin Award, given to a training staff strictly based on stats—how many man-days are lost to injury. He worked as an assistant in Cleveland when the Indians' staff won the award in 2007 then again as the Royals' point man three seasons ago. That's when Kansas City's man-days-lost fell by more than 850.
Whatever prestige that came with "The Martin" was trumped by a vote of his peers. The Royals 2013 medical team was named the Major League Athletic Training Staff of the Year by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society.
"It's a helluva lot more special,” he says. “These people go through the same grind."
In some ways, this is a hospitality award. Medical staffs that perform their jobs over 81 road games don't want to feel like Hawkeye, Trapper John and Hot Lips in a M*A*S*H tent. Visiting teams expect all the quality and comforts of home when their wounded need immediate attention.
"The ultimate compliment is to hear you do things the right way, that we take care of their guys like they're our guys,” Kenney explains. “We bend over backwards for teams in our division since we see them multiple times. Our staffs are good friends. The industry goal is to keep guys healthy."
Five years ago, the Royals needed a new voice, leadership and direction when head trainer Nick Swartz retired after 33 years in the Royals' organization. From an initial list of 14, General Manager Dayton Moore asked top assistant Dean Taylor to give him just four people to interview. It wasn't by accident that Moore met with Kenney last, since he was considered to be the man to beat.
"We knew we had to sell ourselves," Moore told me. "He was good and would have more opportunities. We'd done enough research to know he'd be impressive. The bottom line is you want somebody that everybody trusts."
Left to Right: Ryan Stoneberg, Jeff Blum, Nick Kenney, Kyle Turner, Rick Knoffer
Nick Kenney seeks to prevent player injuries and shorten recovery times when injuries do occur.
It's an interesting dichotomy for the trainer, who's technically part of the players union but an employee of the ballclub. That means balancing diverse schools of thought. In exchange for contract figures with two commas, management demands maximum performance and effort, even if a player's less than 100 percent. That might not fly with an agent, who knows the financial risk of his meal ticket playing through an injury.
For Kenney, it's not all that complicated. What's good for the player is also best for the organization. That's where trust and a steady hand are allies. Drama is never welcome.
"You can have a training room that's The Jerry Springer Show or a place of healing and professionalism," Moore says. "But he's not afraid to get in a guy's face and challenge him. Nick's very pro-active, assertive, confident and convicted in what players need to do."
For Kenney, it’s personal.
"I don't like confrontation if I can avoid it,” he says. “But I'm passionate about a person's outcome. My dad, by God, if he was staring you in the face, you were doing something wrong. He was no bark, all bite. My mom was the opposite."
Dean and Carole Kenney taught their son about putting in an honest day's work in a rural community where boys like Nick jumped on a tractor, by themselves, at the age of nine and drove a car at 10 and nobody blinked. On a 178-acre farm in southwest Ohio, the Kenneys produced grain while raising beef-cattle and swine.
After the crops and livestock were tended to, Nick's dad headed out to his second job as an electrician for Airborne Express at their hub nearly 18 miles away.
That inherited work ethic fits well in modern baseball, where a trainer's work is never done. Kenney takes about a week off after the season ends, then another at Christmas time. The rest of the year, Kenney orchestrates what he calls an "action plan." He oversees everything from strength and conditioning to nutrition. Players on the 40-man roster get top priority, but the plan also applies throughout the minor league system and in the Royals' Dominican Republic operation.
Mike Moustakas dropped 10 pounds over the off-season, buying into Kenney's three-pack plan for success: look better, feel better, play better.
"Guys find out their bodies get old quick with so many games,” Kenney says. “You get 'em into healthy habits early, and that leads to longevity. We have a tremendous group of guys that get it."
THE MAN WITH A PLAN
Kenney's always in the loop when it comes to potential free agent targets or other "wish list" talent. In fact, the Royals never would have traded for Ervin Santana without the medical staff's blessing. In 2012 with the Angels, Santana had a bloated earned run average with lingering questions about his right elbow. The Royals took a $12 million risk and reaped overwhelming results.
Kenney admits his advisory role is stressful since you can't predict the future.
"In our market, we don't have room for error in the decision making,” he says. “We have to stay diligent to the plan."
Moore adds: "We don't make the Santana deal unless (team physician) Dr. (Vincent) Key and Nick think we can get him through the whole year. Preventive medicine is crucial for our success. We thought Nick would create that kind of environment. And he adds the most important element: he cares."
Kenney makes it clear that none of these awards would come without those nearby. Men in the same trench. His baseball family. From the top doc at KU Med to the team's massage therapist. Nick beams as he talks about the dedicated collection of educated professionals who are outside-the-box thinkers in a game where bodies routinely break down from over-use.
However, some injuries can be prevented, and recovery periods can be shortened by following Kenney's plan.
"It's gratifying to see a guy come back at a high level,” he says. “You give 'em a hug before they go compete. It's fun to watch guys grow, mature and learn from adversity. When they appreciate us for who we are, not what we do, it's awesome."
Here are Kansas City Royals head trainer Nick Kenney’s top five injuries afflicting players during the season:
1. Rotator cuff inflammation/fatigue
2. Medial elbow soreness
3. Lower back tightness
4. Hamstring strains
5. Ankle sprains
photos: Kansas City Royals