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Monday, March 01, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bob Finnigan
PEORIA, Ariz. No matter how darkly Chris Snelling sees his situation, he is not the only young outfielder forced to deal with seemingly endless injuries.
In a twist of fortune that went right for a change, Jay Buhner, who survived waves of woes and thrived, was here to talk with him.
There is no one better suited to counsel an oft-bruised young outfielder than the old outfielder, who early in his career got more ice than the Arctic, more wraps than a mummy, more stitches than a tailor's dummy.
Buhner never dove into a dry swimming pool, as Snelling once did (breaking his arm, of course). But the retiree, who is in camp as an instructor/inspiration, was on the disabled list five times his first six seasons, and often angrily questioned if he would ever get healthy.
"I simply told Chris, 'Been there, done that. Keep your head up,' " Buhner said. "There are a bunch of people around here glad you're hurt."
Snelling broke his left hand in 2000, his right ankle in 2001 and came back to hit .326 at San Antonio. He made the Mariners in May and promptly tore up his left knee.
He came back from that to hit .333 at San Antonio last year, and, just when he thought he had put the bugaboo behind him, was shut down after taking three swings the first day of camp, with soreness in his right hand.
Manager Bob Melvin said Snelling was unlucky rather than unhealthy. But when doctors opened up Snelling's hand, they found an old fracture of the hamate bone Snelling hadn't known about.
Since that injury healed with a roughness that was aggravating the tendons, which was his problem last Thursday, doctors broke off the hook of the hamate and removed it.
Buhner told him he had several things going for him.
"No. 1, he's highly respected in our organization," Buhner said. "No. 2, he's young. Beyond that he's already been up for a cup of coffee in the big leagues.
"Right there, he's touched it, the trophy, the prize. I told him, 'Don't let anyone take it away.' "
It is not that any of Snelling's fellow minor-leaguers or camp invitees would wish him ill, but they are competing, and with the rewards of a career so great, the competition is fierce.
"You don't want to think that of the guys around you would secretly be glad you have a problem, but it's true," Buhner said. "It's only human nature because they're trying to get ahead."
Buhner focused on Snelling with his steel-blue eyes and said with steel in his tone, "Don't let them take your dream away."
Snelling looked at him and said, "I won't."
"He won't, either," Buhner said. "That kid reminds me of me."
He could have been talking of the propensity toward hospitalization. When he was a kid in Texas, Buhner's mom would call the clinic if she didn't know where he was. Snelling recalls cutting his head open five times when he was a kid.
But Buhner was talking about attitude.
"There's something in us, beating ourselves up, not only physically but mentally," Buhner said. "We're very similar in how we relate to ourselves. Perfectionists."
Snelling was helped by hearing it from someone who knows what it is like to have recovered from assorted ailments.
"It has reality when it comes from someone who can relate to what you're going through," the Australian said.
Asked if being shut down on the first official day of the baseball year was a test of attitude, Snelling said, "It still is ... a test of staying positive."
He spent all winter in Arizona, getting ready, driving himself as usual, as Buhner used to. Yet in the first minutes of the first workout, he wound up out for six weeks.
"When it happened, I remember feeling the pain and thinking, 'Oh, no ... why me?' " Snelling said. "Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes you don't find out that reason for a long time afterward.
"My biggest thing is that I haven't been able to enjoy baseball the past 2-1/2 years."
Snelling may have been talking of this injury or his career when he added, "I wish I had an answer, like I was unfit or something. It would be more upsetting if it was something you could control. It's not like you can improve on not getting hurt.
"The bottom line is, as frustrating as it is, it's not the worst thing for me. I've been through worse."
Buhner advised him, "Keep your head up, watch your body language. People throughout the organization will be watching how you handle this. You stick your chest out and get through it, to the point of being egotistical and cocky."
Looking back on his conversation, Buhner was reminded how former teammate Dave Valle and trainer Rick Griffin counseled him through one injury setback after another, "and basically kept me sane."
"Years from now Chris will look back and remember this conversation and think, 'Wow! He was right,' " Buhner said. "I'm glad I kept going because it turned out well for me, and it will for him, too. Believe me."
Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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