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Houston Astros team doctor shares his experience in playoff quarantine bubble
But there have been situational positives, such as a deeper connection between Lintner and the players.
"They know me since I've worked with them forever, but they usually only see me once a week in a normal year," Lintner said. "During this month, they have seen me every day, all day. I end up being in conversations, jokes and pranks - things professional athletes do."
The longtime Houston orthopedic surgeon explained what it's like to be in the Astros quarantine bubble.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you work with the Astros?
A.: My responsibility as their head team physician is to look for their health and wellbeing. In orthopedic area, we work on injury prevention programs and do immediate evaluation and treatment if an injury should occur. In my role as orthopedist, for instance, last night a player got hurt, and I had to evaluate them immediately during the game to see if it was safe or advisable for him to continue to play. I advise the player with my recommendations and then institute a treatment plan.
They've had me traveling with team in the bubble to be able to provide that immediate service. Most teams do not have physicians with them, but I think it's best to have physicians with them during this high-stress time; it gives the team a competitive advantage.
Q: What has been different about this season?
A.: During the regular season, there wasn't a bubble, but we had restrictions on who could be in the stadium. In playoffs, that has changed. Home or away, players, staff and physicians are restricted to the stadium or hotel. There is no contact with anyone outside the organization. I haven't gotten to see my family, go to dinner or go out for work. We're tested for coronavirus every day.
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The players are used to spending a lot of time close together in the club house - talking, playing cards, eating together. But with all the social distancing requirements within baseball, the locker rooms are spread out into multiple rooms with 6 feet between every locker. Everyone is wearing masks. When they've traveled in previous years, players could go out to dinner or socialize with friends and family on road trips, but now we're all confined to a hotel room until we go back to the stadium.
Q: The MLB didn't require a strict all-teams bubble like the NBA. Did you think this was a workable strategy for the Astros?
A.: Before the season, I was pessimistic. But speaking from direct experience, the Houston Astros have been so focused and diligent on doing it the right way, and they've been successful. Some teams took it more serious than others for sure. For the most part, across the league with few exceptions, it’s worked.
For the Astros specifically, it’s worked, which is a testament to player behavior and shouldering responsibility. And also the athletic training staff who have done an unbelievable amount of work behind the scenes to keep the players safe.
Q: Do you feel more connected to the team because of the need for isolation?
A.: It does foster a closeness. The feeling of separation and an isolation from public fosters that kind of relationship - especially with me as their physician. They've been very welcoming and inclusive and seem to appreciate what I'm giving up in terms of my practice in order to be with them in order to see them succeed and stay safe.
Being with them, embedded with the team every day for the last month, it's been great to have a strong relationship with players. It makes it more fun, makes the relationship more helpful. From a medical standpoint, they are more comfortable having casual conversations with me that they wouldn't otherwise bring to discussion.
Q: What are games like without fans in the stands?
A.: The players have dealt with that all year. (Typically in a playoff game), every pitch is so pregnant, so stress related, and the crowd just reacts to every single pitch. The intensity and energy in the air is palpable, normally. This year, seats are empty, and they pipe in noise. The players feed off the crowd’s emotions and energy level and there isn't that. Trust me, they're still playing super hard and intense, but tension in the air is diminished; the energy in the atmosphere is diminished.
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Q: Overall, what has this experience been like for you?
A.: It's been difficult to not see my sons or my wife. It's difficult to not be able to go to work at my regular job. I miss everyday life.
However, I do keep in mind, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Houston Astros (1-3) take on the Tampa Bay Rays (3-1) at 4:07 p.m. Thursday in Game 5 of the AL West.
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