By JOHN PESETSKI
Special to FOXSportsWisconsin.com
PHOENIX Tough. It doesn't take long for a member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization to say that word when describing second baseman Rickie Weeks. Whether its players, coaches, manager Ron Roenicke or front office personnel, tough is almost always the way Weeks is first described.
Weeks' toughness and the impact his approach has on his teammates was on display last season.
From the first at-bat of 2011, when he led off the season with a home run, through late July, Weeks, a 2011 NL All-Star starter, was having the best year of his career. The second overall pick in the 2003 draft was hitting nearly twenty points over his career average and was on pace for career bests in several categories including home runs and OPS.
But all that came to a halt during a July 27 game against the Cubs, when Weeks landed awkwardly on first base and suffered a severe ankle sprain. Placed on the disabled list the next day, Weeks fought his way back to the lineup on Sept. 8 but was clearly not the same player.
"He was a huge part of the team before the ankle injury," pitcher Yovani Gallardo said of Weeks. "For him to join us later in the season and play as hard as he did while the ankle still bothered him was great for everybody. He's tough."
Right fielder Corey Hart knows Weeks well, having played with him for seven seasons, including parts of one year in the minors.
"We wouldn't have expected anything less," Hart said of Weeks' return last September. "He came back and played hard even though he wasn't even close to 100 percent. That inspired us."
Roenicke cites the 5-foot-10, 222-pounder's toughness as one of the things that makes his second baseman such an important figure in the clubhouse.
"He's well respected because of the way he plays," Roenicke said. "Rickie's a team player. He's not out there for individual accomplishments, which a lot of players of his caliber are. And he's tough."
But he does more than lead by example when that is needed.
"I have not been on a lot of teams with a vocal leader. Guys like Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon led by example," said Roenicke, recalling his decade coaching with the Angels. "Rickie's the same way. He's a leader but not real vocal. But when something needs to be said, in the clubhouse or on the field, he'll say it. It's important when we as managers and coaches feel like a leader is on line with us, as Rickie is. That's really important for a team."
Modest by nature, the Florida native downplays his role as a team leader.
"Everybody leads here," Weeks said. "Corey, (Ryan Braun) and I have been around here longer and get to know everybody. We've got a great clubhouse. We don't throw the leadership thing around much. We try to keep it light here."
As modest as Weeks is, his teammates recognize the example the 29-year-old sets.
"He plays hard. That's the most important thing," Gallardo said. "We all see it. He leaves it all on the field. And he always does what's best for the team. He wants to go out there and compete. He's a tough guy. It doesn't matter where he hits or what he's asked to do. Whatever he's asked to do he just plays hard."
Still feeling the effects of the ankle sprain suffered last July, Weeks is approaching spring training with the mix of determination, hard work and -- yes -- toughness his teammates would expect. In fact, publically, he hardly even acknowledges the lingering effects of the injury.
"It's coming," said Weeks of his ankle. "We're working. It's going to be fine."
Roenicke, who suffered a similar injury during his playing career, knows what Weeks is going through and spoke admiringly of the way his second baseman is handling the situation.
"He's mentioned that he's felt it, though I haven't seen it. He looks good. I think he's going to be OK. But I'm not really concerned with him. He's going to tweak it and have days where it's a little sore. But as tough as he is, it's not going to make a difference."
Friday afternoon, as the Brewers work on offensive drills including running first to third, Weeks and the Brewers may get the best indicator yet as to how the ankle is holding up.
Still, regardless of what happens in Friday's workout, nobody in the Brewers clubhouse doubts Weeks will return to form in 2012. And to a man they cite the toughness of the team leader as the reason.
"I've always said, you just either have it or you don't," Weeks said of that trait. "I was brought up tough when I was young. That's all I know how to be. That's just who I am."