WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Adam Eaton arrived in Florida, family in tow, on Jan. 19. There weren’t many others around The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches at that ridiculously early date. But when you’ve spent nine months rehabbing from a torn ACL and the entire winter cooped up inside your snowed-in Michigan home, there’s no reporting date that’s too early.
“I needed the warm weather,” Eaton said, referring not only to his own physical needs, but the needs of his soon-to-be 2-year-old son Brayden.
Suffice it to say, Eaton is getting antsy. He hasn’t faced a live pitcher since April 28, the night he tore up his left knee trying to beat out a grounder to short, and he knows his long wait is nearly over.
Though there still remain a few hurdles to cross, most notably advanced movements like quick cuts in different directions, the energetic outfielder expects to be a full participant in Nationals camp this spring and be leading off in Cincinnati on March 29.
“We still have quite a bit of time until opening day, and that’s been our focus,” he said. “Unless something unforeseen happens, I think that’s easily attainable.”
Eaton has crossed a host of key items off his rehab checklist since his reconstructive surgery. He actually started taking swings as early as June, and he could be seen running in the Nationals outfield in September. There was a chance, however remote, that he would have been able to play had the Nats reached the World Series.
At this point, he’s really just putting the finishing touches on the whole process. But these last touches are vitally important, not simply for the physical test they provide but the mental one, as well. He needs to be able to run the bases and slide in a game situation without thinking about his knee. He needs to chase down an extra-base hit in the left field corner, plant and uncork a throw to the infield. And he needs to see a live pitch thrown at him for the first time in a long time.
But he expects all that to feel like riding a bike after a long layoff. There will be a brief adjustment period, but it shouldn’t be long before it all feels normal again. In the meantime, he’s appreciating all the little things that come with running at full speed again, things he never appreciated before.
“Feeling the breeze in my hair, it’s awesome,” he said. “Oh, my goodness. I know it sounds crazy. But when you don’t run (for months) ...”
Eaton knows his knee still won’t feel entirely normal for some time after he begins playing on a daily basis again. It will require extra work.
“I’ve heard anything,” he said. “I’ve heard, ‘You’ll feel good by the All-Star break’ (or) ‘You’ll feel good by next year.’ ‘You’ll feel this and this.’ I think what I’ve heard is it’s manageable right about now, to go do what you need to do. ... And they keep saying months in, it’ll just click, and all of a sudden it won’t be a thing that will hinder your performance.”
The shift to left field, with Gold Glove finalist Michael A. Taylor having now taken over in center, should help reduce some wear and tear on Eaton’s leg.
“I think Michael Taylor’s more than accomplished in center,” Eaton said. “That dude plays a heck of a center field. I am a man, and I will say that he can probably play a better center field than I can at this point, with my leg especially. If I’m managing, I’d stick (me) in left.”
But will there be any tangible effect on Eaton’s game from the injury? Plenty of baseball players have returned from ACL tears and picked up right where they left off, but not all of them played the game the way Eaton has (at times with reckless abandon) through most of his career.
To hear the 29-year-old describe it, though, a calculated alteration had already been made a few seasons back when he still played for the White Sox.
“You know what, I think my style of play was kind of going to this anyways,” he said “If you looked at me early in my career, I really played with my hair on fire. Running into walls. Doing really stupid stuff. And then the second year in Chicago, I kind of started to slow things down, be more methodical. I think this is only going to rush this process, which is good. I think I can be very efficient at a slower pace.”