Trailblazing female sports trainer: 'There's a mutual respect' with players

Now in her second year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sue Falsone has become a trailblazer as the first female head athletic trainer in major professional sports.

Sue Falsone never set out to be a pioneer when she was hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but she has learned to embrace the role.

Falsone is the first female head athletic trainer for a major professional team, a job that is conspicuous in Major League Baseball, a male-dominated sport where women who aren't reporters are rarely seen on the field and in the clubhouse. 

“I didn’t (see myself as a trailblazer), but I guess I do now,’’ Falsone told Erica Hill on TODAY Wednesday of her second season with the team. “I get a lot of letters and tweets.”

Stan Conte, the Dodgers’ vice president of medical services, was not trying to break barriers when he hired Falsone. She has worked with professional athletes for 12 years, including a stint at the highly regarded Athletes’ Performance training center in Phoenix.

“I knew that she was a woman, I did notice that,’’ Conte quipped on TODAY. “I did notice that there were no women around. My philosophy is, and I think everybody’s should be, that it’s about performance, and at this level, it’s all about performance. I just felt that she was the best person for that job.”

“Her expertise is knowing how everything is working, where the injuries are coming from,’’ Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told TODAY. “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, that’s a hamstring injury,’ trying to find why we’re having hamstring injuries.”

Falsone and her staff have helped the Dodgers overcome a rash of injuries early in the season to get some top players back on the field who have helped them move into first place in their division.

Falsone, 39, has become part of the fabric of the clubhouse, where many are curious how she interacts in an area where players can sometimes be nude.

“There’s a mutual respect there, for sure,’’ she said. “It’s just like women reporters being in the clubhouse where (the players) are changing after they’re showering, so that’s their space.”

“Sue’s incredible,’’ Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis told TODAY. “She thinks about the ballplayer a lot. She understands our temperaments as athletes and ballplayers. She really does get it.”

The Dodgers are in first place in the National League West despite a rash of injuries that have kept several key players, including All-Star outfielder Matt Kemp, on the disabled list. The team was in last place in the division on June 21 at 30-42 with a more than $216 million payroll — the largest in the National League. But the return of star shortstop Hanley Ramirez from injury, rookie sensation Yasiel Puig and a strong pitching staff have helped propel them to the top of the standings. 

Falsone and her staff have endured some grief from Dodgers fans online due to the plague of injuries that made the first half of the season difficult.

“There’s a lot of added pressure across the board (with) how big those contracts are and the pressure those guys put on themselves,’’ Falsone said. “People think, ‘Oh well, you know they’re making a lot of money, who cares?’ Well, this is their job. It’s how they provide for their family.”

Falsone, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from Daemen College and a master’s in human movement science from the University of North Carolina, has worked hard with her staff to get the Dodgers’ high-priced stars back on the field for the stretch run of the season. The improved health of the team's players — including Ellis, who bounced back from a quadriceps injury — has made an impact on the Dodgers’ ability to make a run at the playoffs.

“This is the best I've felt all season, and it's all because of Sue and her staff,’’ Ellis said.