Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Mark O’Neal

By Kenny Berkowitz Chicago Cubs Head Athletic Trainer Mark O’Neal, LAT, ATC, and his colleagues were named the 2008 Major League Baseball Athletic Training Staff of the Year. In this interview, O’Neal talks about winning the award, the daily challenges of working in the Major Leagues, and preparing for spring training.

T&C: Congratulations on being named Major League Baseball Athletic Training Staff of the Year. O’Neal: Thanks. Like anything else, we take it in stride, but it’s a peer-driven award, which makes it especially nice to win. There are 30 clubs in the Major Leagues, with a head athletic trainer and an assistant athletic trainer on each team, and throughout the season everyone votes for one staff. Hopefully, when teams come to our place, we make their stay easier and help them with physicians’ questions, pharmaceutical needs, and anything else that comes up.

The best part was they announced the award at the winter meeting of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society, where I’m the executive committee secretary. PBATS is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and we invited every athletic trainer who had ever been involved at the Major League level. So a lot of the people who helped shape my career were there, which made the announcement even more special.

I really need to emphasize that this award honors our entire staff, including our medical director and team doctors, Assistant Athletic Trainer Ed Halbur, and all our minor league athletic trainers. It’s a great group that provides all the medical care a player might need–and more. For instance, the wife of one of our players is pregnant, and I’ve been setting up appointments with the obstetrician who’s scheduled to deliver their baby during spring training.

How do you spend the off-season?

There really is no off-season anymore. We do as much as we can during the season, but if a player is just trying to make it through to October, we don’t want to be too aggressive. During the last two or three weeks of the season, we meet with the orthopedist to talk about each player and identify problems we want to address in the off-season so athletes can come to spring training in optimal health. Usually, we give players three to four weeks off, depending on when we end the season, and we shoot for Nov. 1 to start our off-season conditioning program.

Then, around Jan. 1, we add baseball activity to their conditioning programs. Pitchers start their throwing programs and position players begin fielding ground balls, throwing, and hitting. We see each of them again before they report to spring training, and give reports to the general manager on all the visits we make. Plus, we spend a lot of time with free agents and trade acquisitions, so we have a lot of off-season communication with other teams and athletic trainers. How often do you check in on players?

We see each of them between the end of the season and the holidays, when they’re working on non-baseball activities. During that time, pitchers are conditioning their shoulders and doing a scapular stabilization plan, and position players start on strength, cardiovascular, and core development before building the foundation for their throwing arms.

Checking in requires a lot of travel. We make trips around the country and have stops in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. One of our players lives in Japan, so Tim Buss, our Strength and Conditioning Coach, met him last week in Hawai’i.

How have the players’ approaches to off-season conditioning changed?

When I started in 1990, a lot of guys used to report to spring training out of shape, then use those six weeks to get fit. But there’s so much competition now, if you’re not ready to roll on the first day, you’re already far behind.

How has your approach changed?

Our staff has also taken a much more active role in getting players into optimal condition. We have eight minor league athletic trainers, including five in Arizona, where our facility stays open year-round. On our 40-man roster, about a dozen guys live in Arizona and work out at our facility every day.

Do you still do the hands-on work for rehabs?

Absolutely. It’s all under my direction. But like everything else, you’re only as good as the people you have working with you, and the guys we have are diligent, dedicated, and knowledgeable. We have an excellent relationship with a physical therapy clinic in Phoenix, where our players go for the post-surgical rehabs. When they enter the functional work phase, we transition them to the rehab center at our facility.

What are the most challenging rehabs at that level?

The toughest thing we deal with is an unstable shoulder. Obviously, the shoulder is a very unstable joint, which is what allows these guys to throw like they can, but there’s a fine line between instability that works and instability that causes pain. It’s a very difficult joint, and there are few shoulder surgeries and rehabs that don’t experience setbacks.

Are you seeing more of certain kinds of injuries?

If you look at most other sports, you see a lot of acute injuries, and maybe in some older athletes you’ll have problems with degeneration. But for professional baseball players–who reach their prime from 28 to 32 years old–much of what we deal with is chronic. We still have the traumatic things, like ankle sprains and contusions, but the majority of injuries we deal with in the Major Leagues are chronic degeneration issues.

What’s the biggest challenge in working with athletes who play every day?

Motivating them to play. By the time they get to the Major Leagues, they know what’s expected of them and they understand the demands. What most fans don’t realize is that by the time they go to bed, we’re on a plane flying to our next game. We get to our next city at 3 a.m., sleep until 9 a.m., then get up and get ready to play. We play 162 games in roughly 180 days and fly thousands of miles in between. Meeting those demands, especially the mental aspect, is a grind for the players and all of us who prepare them to get on the field.

Is your job harder in April or September?

April is tough, but it’s definitely harder in September. By March, players are building their endurance, and by April they should be reaching a crescendo in their physical fitness. By September, the team is either in the playoffs or thinking ahead to the off-season.

If you’ve been eliminated from the playoffs, trying to get 25 guys to go out there every day becomes an incredible challenge. And if you’re still in the race, like we were last year, you’ve got to keep guys at their peak while still giving them as much rest as possible. By the time September rolls around, the players are tired, and so are we.

What’s your day-to-day life like during the season?

In Chicago, we can only schedule about 20 night games a year. So we play a lot of day games, just the way it used to be, and I love it. For a day game, I take a 6 a.m. jog around the lake front before heading to Wrigley Field. The players start showing up around 9 a.m. and we do treatments until about 10:30 a.m. before they go out for batting practice and stretching, which lasts until about noon. The game starts at 1:30 p.m., and it’s usually over by 4:30. Afterward, I do about an hour of treatment and conditioning work with the pitchers, leave at around 5:30, and get home by 6:30.

With all our day games, this is as close as you can come to having a normal lifestyle in Major League Baseball–which is one of the things that really appealed to me about this job. When we’re playing at home, I can be back with my family by 6:30 p.m., and attend my kids’ baseball games at night.

What’s the challenge of working in an old facility?

Everything. It’s an old, small facility. We’re cramped and there’s no storage, but it’s still a fun place to go. I love history, and there’s not a day that I don’t walk into that ballpark thinking about all the people who have been there over the last 100 years.

The team is for sale right now, and there’s talk about modernizing the facilities like they did at Fenway Park, where they completely gutted the interior. The architects have already drawn up plans for a new athletic training room, weightroom, hydro rooms, offices, and all the stuff you get in these newer ballparks. So there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re not quite near that light yet.

How much interaction do you have with the minor league athletic trainers?

We work together very closely. We have a minor league athletic training coordinator and a minor league rehabilitation coordinator, each of whom I speak with two or three times a week. When we have a significant injury here in Chicago, we’ll send that player to Arizona, where he’ll work with our rehab coordinator until he can come back.

I make it a point to contact each of our minor league athletic trainers at least twice a month, just to ask, “How are you doing? Is there anything we can do for you?” For some of the minor league clubs, the budgets are really stretched, so if there’s anything they need, I take it from my storage room and send it over.

Where did you work before coming to Chicago?

I was in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system from 1990 through 1997, with a year in Savannah, Ga., three years in Little Rock, Ark., and four years in Louisville, Ky. I got to the Major Leagues with the Cardinals in 1998 and was there through the World Series in 2004, when the Red Sox beat us. I took the job as Head Athletic Trainer for the Cubs in 2005, so I’ve had four years here.

What have you learned about working with baseball managers?

They’re all different. My first two years in Chicago, Dusty Baker was as much a friend as he was a boss–he’s still a close friend of mine. Dusty had a way of doing things, he was very easy to work with, and if there were problems, he’d say, “Hey, we’ll get through them.” He made my first two years as a head athletic trainer much, much easier than they could have been.

Then Dusty was let go and Lou Piniella came on board. Lou is very intelligent and really knows the game of baseball. He had a long playing career, so he recognizes the importance of resting players before they get hurt.

How has your job changed over the years?

It’s grown much more demanding. With computers, technology, and the influx of information, everything is much more complex. At the same time, HIPAA has eased one of the most difficult parts of the job. Before HIPAA I had to address the media all the time, which took a lot out of me.

How has drug testing affected your job?

It hasn’t. Major League Baseball brings in people to do the testing, and it’s all independently run. We don’t know they’re coming until an hour before they walk through the door, and we don’t know who they’re going to test until they hand us a piece of paper with players’ names on it. We point out the players and then we’re done. And when guys ask us if it’s good or bad to take a particular supplement, our standard response is, “If it’s not regulated by the FDA, then you have no idea what’s in it, and we don’t recommend it. Period.”

What trends do you see affecting the profession?

More and more teams are taking a functional approach to athletic training. We want athletes doing as much work as possibly while on their feet. Obviously, we still need treatment tables, but no one throws a baseball lying on their back. For almost every exercise that can be done lying down, there’s an alternative that can be done in a functional stance.

Also, as a profession, I think we’re earning more respect than ever. I just got back from a meeting with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who sits down with a group of Major League athletic trainers twice a year. He sees us as being at the grassroots level and doesn’t want to get blindsided by another issue like steroids or HGH, so he opens the meeting to anyone who wants to attend, and Major League Baseball picks up the tab. It’s nice to have direct interaction with the top of the organization, and I think it says a lot about how far we’ve come in the last 25 years.

Is there a good career path for athletic trainers who want to work in professional baseball?

Sure. PBATS and the NATA have an internship program in all the minor league cities as well as on the Major League level. There are applications on the PBATS Web site and the NATA Web site, and there are PBATS scholarships to help students through graduate school.

I hire at least one minor league athletic trainer a year, and the internship program has become a huge resource for us. There are also courses offered by the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), and every year the Kerlan & Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles puts on a clinic that’s co-sponsored by PBATS. Just about every Major League athletic trainer goes to both, and it’s a great opportunity for people who are interested in working at this level.

What advice do you have for athletic trainers interested in working in baseball?

Love what you do. We’re the first people to arrive at the ballpark and the last to leave, so if you’re going to last, you’ve got to love it. The bottom line is that we’re here to provide a service. And if we can win awards like this once-in-a-lifetime thing, that’s nice, too.

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.


I really enjoyed reading this well-researched and well-written article about athletic training at the major league level. I served as an athletic trainer for the Kansas City Royals Baseball Club in the summer of 1973 for their minor league team in Kingsport, Tenn. and I loved it.

I love your publication and I am an avid fan of the Chicago Cubs and of Mark O’Neal. I have watched the job he and his staff have done the last 4 years and I am very impressed. I spent 32 years of my life as a Certified Athletic Trainer at the high school level and I fully appreciate the balancing act between a wonderful professional career and a loving, meaningful, satisfying family life.

I especially enjoyed the advice that Mark gave in the article about starting off in this very competitive profession. He was right on the mark, no pun intended.

-Jerry Marsh

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