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Monday, August 25, 2003

Trainer keeps Cubs swinging


DAYTONA BEACH — Steve Melendez leaned his stocky frame against the dugout railing at Jackie Robinson Ballpark and watched as the young Daytona Cubs players took batting practice.

“This is where it gets melancholy. The season’s ending,” he said. “It’s tough. You get to grow with these guys.”

Like actors in a long-running play, the curtain will close Saturday after more than five months for the Daytona Cubs and Melendez, the team’s 44-year-old athletic trainer.

Next year’s cast of characters will be as different as the plot line. Promising phenoms will join hardened holdovers, each with lofty dreams of reaching Chicago or some other big league city.

Melendez expects to return next spring for his sixth season in Daytona Beach and 18th overall as a trainer in the Cubs organization. He’ll spend the fall and winter in Puerto Rico, vacationing and working with a team in a league there.

“This is an awesome job,” he said in his thick Bronx accent, tossing two equipment bags on the floor of the dugout.

A typical day at the ballpark for Melendez begins about noon and ends close to midnight, unless there’s a player to drive to an early doctor’s appointment. He often starts his pre-game ritual mixing Powerade into two huge coolers with a garden hose.

“It’s hot man,” Melendez said of the weather. “I gotta keep these guys hydrated.”

His job includes everything from treating player injuries to packing travel trunks for chartered bus trips to ballparks as far away as Fort Myers.

And there’s more.

Daytona Cubs general manager, Buck Rogers, said Melendez just last month noticed something was wrong with the knees of a 10-year-old boy taking part in the team’s baseball camp.

Rogers said Melendez notified the boy’s mother and advised that she take her son to a doctor for tests. The boy’s symptoms indicated possible juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

Melendez’ knowledge and concern is appreciated by his boss.

“Many times, Steve takes care of people who are not his responsibility, from campers to fans to our staff,” Rogers said.

But Cub players are his main priority.

One-by-one, they arrived in the locker room. They listened to hip-hop music, watched a New York Yankees game on TV and visited the cramped training room.

Melendez checked out knees, shoulders and feet, sprinkling humor with serious advice.

“I know everything there is to know about these guys, because I need to know where they’re coming from,” he said. “When you’re in pro ball, and you’re with them 140 games, it’s nice to know what they’re about. I try to know the human side of them.”

Between massages, hot packs and ultrasound muscle treatments, Melendez verbally sparred with several players as they drifted in and out. Loud and outgoing, he spoke in English and Spanish, acting much like a big brother, as several players asked to use his laptop computer and cell phone.

A thankful Mike Mallory returned his copy of a book about the history of black professional baseball called, “Only the Ball Was White.”

A fretful Renyel Pinto asked for help trying to find his lost equipment bag.

And a grateful Matt Craig was encouraged that his groin and hamstring injuries seemed cured.

“Stevie’s done a great job keeping me going all year,” he said. “I missed about 15 games, which isn’t bad.”

But while Melendez is friendly, he isn’t friends with any Daytona Cub player.

“I don’t hang out with them,” he said.

Over the years, he has learned much from players about human nature and million-dollar egos, which can be as big a part of baseball as batting averages and booming home runs.

“To some guys, we are just a speed bump along the road. It’s just business,” he said. “You’re only here to take care of them.”

Melendez had a taste of the big leagues as an assistant trainer with the Chicago Cubs from 1998 until 2000. And it didn’t work out.

“It’s not really my goal to get there again. So I just work with the young kids,” he said. “I like this level. The players can be themselves and have fun.”

And so can Melendez. Daytona Beach sure beats Peoria.

“I love this area. The travel is easy. It’s not a bad setup,” he said, smiling. “If you enjoy the game, you might as well enjoy it in Florida.”


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