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August 7, 2007

Barry Bonds' Brace

Orthotic Verisimilitude

by Will Carroll

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Will talks with Mark Silva on Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

You don't know Mark Silva, but you know his work. As a certified orthotist, Silva is one of the top builders of custom sports braces for athletes. He's made them for football players in his work with the San Francisco 49ers, and he's made them for baseball players, including Rickey Henderson and Mo Vaughn. It's the brace that Barry Bonds wears while batting that Silva is best known for.

On Monday, an article was published regarding the brace, first at Editor and Publisher (a specialty publication covering the newspaper industry), purporting that the brace worn by Bonds was an illegal aid that helped Bonds hit home runs. The assertions of the author, Michael Witte, were on their surface difficult to believe, but I wanted to know more about this brace. What was it made of? Who made it? Could it possibly help Bonds hit? (I should note here that e-mails to Mr. Witte remain unanswered at the time of publication, and I was unable to find a phone number for him.)

It took me one e-mail and one phone call to find Mark Silva. I called Mr. Silva on Monday evening, interrupting a bocce game. Silva had not seen the article nor heard the assertions made against his handiwork, but he was willing to talk to me about both. In an interview recorded Monday night, Silva broke down each of the assertions and provided the facts of the brace he has made for more than 15 years. Our conversation brought out a fact that as yet has never been documented. Mr. Silva states that not only has he never spoken of this, but that he's never been asked about it.

The brace that Bonds wears was first constructed in 1992. Bonds needed a brace to protect his arm after surgery, and Silva's work with athletes was already well-known. Each year, Bonds comes into Silva's workplace and has a mold made of his arm, which allows Silva to custom-build the brace. Silva explains that "it's a pretty labor-intensive. I take a negative cast of the arm. Each year, I make a cast of Barry's arm, a plaster mold. I cut the mold off, put a lead pipe down the center for strength, then strip off the negative cast, making a positive cast or a model to work with. I then sculpt it with plaster to build out areas we don't want pressure applied to, and then choose the materials specific to the sport so they can function at the highest level." The completely custom brace, which Silva estimates weighs between four and six ounces, is designed to "not be noticed" by the athlete. The straps are elastic and allow the arm to move within the brace during the swing, protecting the arm without restricting motion.

It's the molds that bring forth the most interesting fact regarding Bonds since Game of Shadows was published. Silva states that because of the custom nature of the work, he's been asked to make casts of Bonds each year. In the first couple of years, he went through the entire process, but due to his workload, he started checking Bonds with precision calipers each subsequent year. "If I made the same brace every year for 12 or more years," Silva said, "it was because there was no size change in Barry's arms."

You read that correctly--the man who not only builds Bonds' brace, but who has taken precision measurements of his arm since 1992, has not seen any increase in the size of Bonds' arm. Point blank, Silva said "there's been no significant change in the size of his arms."

Forget hat size--this is Bonds' arm. I'll admit that this seems counterintuitive. Bonds looks like he's grown. Even after listening to the interview over and over, it still sounds wrong as he says it. Was his arm just unnaturally large, I asked? "No, I don't think so," Silva said. "Rickey Henderson's arm is more muscular than any arm I've seen, as far as definition, and Mo Vaughn's not a very small guy either."

The assertions of an orthotist, not to mention a man who has Bonds as a customer, are not going to change anyone's mind about the perceived guilt or innocence of Barry Bonds. They won't stop someone from waving their foam asterisk, and I've learned that larding an argument with facts tends to fall short when it comes to the steroids issue. If we accept the assumption that Bonds has used performance enhancers and a well-documented workout regimen, would we expect Bonds' arms to show no change? Most major-league baseball players talk about maintenance workouts, a type of training regimen designed to aid in recovery and to keep players from losing muscle mass during the course of a season. However, Bonds' braces are built at the start of each season, precisely when a measurement of his arm would be most telling due to his ability to conduct longer, more strenuous workouts designed to build muscle mass.

While the jury is out on whether steroids help a baseball player, there's no question that they build muscle mass. That Bonds did not see any measurable gains in the one place where most men want to show gains--in their "guns"--is remarkable. The measurements taken by Silva are the most interesting fact added to the discussion since Game of Shadows, one more cogent than hat size, more important than any perceived visual change in size. (Let's face it, Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones don't look the same as they did when they debuted either.) These are precision measurements of Bonds' arms. It stands to reason that any player, or even any man hoping to look good at the beach, would see significant increase of size in their biceps or triceps when paired with the use of androgenics and a personal trainer.

Instead, Mark Silva's calipers and plaster molds give us another piece of information, something else to think about as we attempt to make our own sense of the new home run king and his legacy. From questions about a brace, we've learned something that may help us to understand the most controversial sports story of our lifetime.

You're free to make up your own mind. To hear the Baseball Prospectus exclusive interview with Mark Silva, the man who builds Barry Bonds' elbow brace, click below.

Will talks with Mark Silva about Barry Bonds' brace on Baseball Prospectus Radio.



Click to download the mp3

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