The moment he opens his eyes in the morning, Yankee third baseman Eric Chavez knows what kind of day it will be—whether he will be able to walk around normally and slowly prepare for that night's game, or whether he must spend every moment from dawn to dusk tending to his damaged back.
"There's times when I wake up, and I'm like man—I don't know how I'm going to make it through the day. And I have to start that process very early. It's right when I wake up," he said, snapping his fingers to emphasize the point.
Instead of playing with his son, Chavez will get to work on his brittle back the minute he's out of bed—using an array of stretching and strengthening equipment. Nothing else matters.
"Those are the days when I wake up, and I just spend my first few hours stretching. Making sure nothing bad happens," Chavez said. "And those days are not fun at all."
On a team littered with 40-year-olds, the oldest body belongs to one of the younger players. The 34-year-old Chavez is the most fragile man on the Yankees, a player who spends literally his entire day managing his body just so he can stay on the field.
Chavez was once one of baseball's best players, an annual 30-home run threat and a perennial Gold Glove defender. But he did it all in spite of a bad back. He first injured it in the Arizona Fall League, as an 19-year-old prospect with the Oakland A's.
It worsened through his 20s, and in 2007, he had surgery to repair a bulging disc between the L4-L5 vertebrae. He also developed a herniated disc between the L3-L4 vertebrae, requiring more surgery. He has also undergone three shoulder surgeries, and suffered broken hands and broken feet. Chavez is perhaps the definition of the injury prone player.
The injuries sapped his effectiveness, and from 2007-10 he was a non-factor. Only in the past season has he been able to return to effective play, and only as a part-timer backing up Alex Rodriguez. He weighed retirement this winter, but opted to come back, believing he could manage his pain.
So far, he's been right: He is hitting .260 with seven doubles and four homers in 43 games, while playing immaculate defense at third base—and it's all due to the tireless work he puts in to manage his body, said his longtime agent, Scott Leventhal.
"He's got four homers, he's come up with some big hits, and some big plays, and it all comes from what he's doing to prepare himself," Leventhal said. "The massage, the therapy, the diet, it's really the things you don't see. It's definitely an exhausting process, but one that's worth it to him."
To stay on the field, Chavez has developed an elaborate routine to prepare his back, and then prevent it from tightening up during the day. It begins with the morning of stretching, and often continues with professional therapy from noon to 2 p.m. before games.
Then it's time to head to the park, where the real work begins. From the moment Chavez begins his game prep, he knows he will be in near-constant motion until the final out: If his back is moving, it won't tighten up. So from 3 p.m. on, he moves constantly.
First comes hot-and-cold therapy. Chavez sits in a heated tank, and then a cold tank, to loosen, and then tighten up the muscles.
Then he puts on protective gloves, and applies heat packs to specific trouble spots on his body—shoulders, lower back, and neck, primarily.
From there it's off to the gym, for 20 minutes of what he calls activation: treadmills, stretching with a medicine ball, core work.
Now he can start baseball activity. But even that is limited. For every swing or throw Chavez makes, there is a corresponding cost.
"Let's say I go take ground balls, if I want to work on something," Chavez said. "I make 25-30 throws—my shoulder's going to be barking. I can't take 50 swings before the game. I have to take 15.
"I love fine tuning. I love working on my swing. But I just can't do it anymore," he said.
Finally, it is time for the game. If Chavez is starting that day, then all is well—playing will keep him fresh and loose. But if he is on the bench, reserved for the late innings to pinch hit or play defense, he must prevent his back from tightening up.
He can't sit in the dugout with his teammates. So he starts wandering around the clubhouse. "I'll watch the game for about an inning. Then I'll come back in here, walk around, watch a half-inning, go hit in the batting cage, do some stretching," Chavez said.
He roams the empty clubhouse while the action goes on above. He knows when good things happen, because he hears the cheers.
After the game, Chavez is wrapped from head to knees in elaborate ice pack shells, in the hopes that tomorrow won't be any worse than today.
Chavez hasn't yet told manager Joe Girardi that he hurts too much to play—though early this month, it nearly came to that—and he believes this routine can sustain him through this season. As far as next year? He hasn't thought about it.
Chavez has to survive today first, and see how he feels when he wakes up tomorrow.
"It's such a cliché—but for me, I'm seriously day-to-day. And that's how I view my career right now. It's day-to-day," Chavez said.
A version of this article appeared June 22, 2012, on page A26 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Baseball's Biggest Backache.