|Craig Hansen is breathing easier after having surgery to correct the condition that was interrupting his sleep patterns. (File/Jim Davis/The Boston Globe)|
A sleeper in Sox' bullpen
After surgery for his apnea, Hansen works on solid rest
FORT MYERS, Fla. - If there are aspects of Craig Hansen's sidetracked career that resemble a waking nightmare, you should know that it has been far worse when the Red Sox reliever was sleeping. Just ask any of his roommates in the last few years.
"They told me," he said yesterday morning, "that I snored like a 500-pound fat man."
This wasn't just cutting up among friends, either. Red Sox brass weren't laughing at last winter's rookie development camp when Hansen kept dozing off during sessions. They summoned Hansen to explain himself to a group that included general manager Theo Epstein.
"I thought, 'This is bad,' " said Hansen, who was not given a four-year, $4 million deal by the Sox when he signed in 2005 for his capacity to yawn.
But by then, Hansen had an explanation. Sufficiently concerned about why he seemed to be tired no matter how many hours he'd slept, and told that there were times he'd wake up in the middle of the night choking and gasping for air, he submitted to a round of testing of his sleep patterns. He was hooked up to equipment that monitored his heart, lungs, and brain activity.
Finally, an answer: Hansen was suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax. When that happens, according to MayoClinic.com, the airway narrows, or closes, and breathing may be inadequate for 10 to 20 seconds, leading to a drop in blood oxygen.
"Your brain senses this inability to breathe and briefly rouses you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway," the website states. "This awakening is usually so brief that you don't remember it."
These interruptions, which often are accompanied by a snorting, gasping, or choking sound, can occur 20-30 times an hour for someone with obstructive sleep apnea, interrupting deep sleep without the person knowing it. In Hansen's case, he was told it was happening 56 times an hour, which basically means he was getting just a couple of minutes of rest per hour.
"I had no clue," he said. "I thought I was getting eight hours' sleep and wake up still tired. I was basically getting two hours' sleep total."
Hansen said he informed the Sox of his condition. Surgery was required to correct the condition, but with spring training about to begin and the operation requiring a month's recovery time, the decision was made to postpone his surgery until after the season.
He underwent the procedure in November, after spending some time pitching in the Arizona Fall League while the Sox were playing in the postseason. The surgery, performed by Dr. Mack Cheney at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, involved the repair of a deviated septum as well as the removal of his tonsils. Essentially, he said, doctors had to fracture his nose to fix the problem.
"I woke up, my mother was right there, and I asked, 'Who beat me up?' " Hansen said.
But it was a punch worth taking.
"It feels great right now," he said. "I woke up at 6 and was able to get right out of bed. I had nothing else to do, so I came here. I wasn't going to sit around the house.
"It feels good to wake up and be replenished."
The snoring, he said, has stopped. A medical monitor?
"No," he said. "I just have my girlfriend [answer] me: 'Do I snore anymore?'
"It's a great sense of relief, after hearing people say they were worried that I would sit up in bed and start gasping for air out of nowhere."
The sleep disorder, of course, does not explain the uneven progression of his path since signing with the Sox. He was in the big leagues in '05 almost straight off the campus of St. John's. Then there was a yo-yo season in '06 split between Pawtucket and Boston, where he had an unsightly ERA of 6.63. There were more struggles in an '07 season spent entirely in Pawtucket, the Red Sox electing not to make him a September callup despite some encouraging signs in the second half.
Hansen said he went willingly to Arizona for the Fall League, which is traditionally a steppingstone for players on their way up to the big leagues, not a place for those who already have been there. Fellow reliever Manny Delcarmen, he said, proved he deserved to be back in Boston; Hansen acknowledged he still had work to do.
But he's excited, he said, that with the help of Pawtucket pitching coach Mike Griffin, he has greatly improved the mechanics on his slider, the pitch - along with his high-90s fastball - that had set him apart in college. He spent most of January working out in Southern California at a training facility run by his agent, Scott Boras - except for the three days he lost from food poisoning after eating bad sushi - and is eager to join the competition for a spot in the Sox bullpen.
"Sometimes a player begins to think he's got to do more than he's physically capable of," said pitching coach John Farrell, referring specifically to high draft choices. "That may have been the case with Craig. I'm not saying it's exactly the case, but I think because of the work he's had to put in to remain at the level of prospect status, I know he's chomping at the bit to get out here and prove that he's worthy of a spot on this team.
"He's still a work in progress, he's still a key component for our bullpen and the long-term success that we'll have here. Pitching is a game of attrition, and we know that we're going to need more than the 12 guys that we begin the season with. Whether he is part of that initial 12 or not, he's got all of the physical abilities which he was drafted under. That still gives everyone a strong belief that he's going to be a key contributor for us."
Hansen, remember, is still just 24 years old. And now he's sleeping like a baby.
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org