SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — A lot of people who were around the night of May 25, 2011, at AT&T Park would rather avoid seeing the replay again. Scott Cousins steamrolled Buster Posey in a flash, but it took several agonizing moments for Posey to get to his feet and be helped off the field into an uncertain future.
Posey, oddly enough, does not count himself among the squeamish. He has a tougher time watching the replay of Arizona shortstop Stephen Drew breaking an ankle on a slide into home plate than the collision that left him with a broken bone in his left leg and three torn ankle ligaments.
“When Stephen Drew got hurt — and he basically did the same thing — it made my stomach turn watching him,” Posey said Sunday. “But I can watch mine and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t know why. Just going through it, I kind of know what it felt like, I guess.”
This is the same direct, practical approach that Posey takes toward his profession and life in general. During the low points, it consistently saved him from bouts of anger, self-pity or the inevitable “what ifs.”
What if Emilio Bonifacio‘s fly ball to right field had been just a little deeper, or Nate Schierholtz‘s throw home had landed in a slightly different spot, or Cousins had taken the opening to slide instead of barreling through Posey to reach the plate? Those are the kinds of questions destined to spin through any young athlete’s mind after a setback so profound.
But dwelling on the negative isn’t in Posey’s DNA, and it helps to have the benefit of hindsight: Nine months after the crash, he almost seems to be willing himself to a happy ending.
One important, symbolic step came off the agenda Sunday. The San Francisco Giants held their first spring workout for pitchers and catchers, and Posey was a busy boy. After catching Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the bullpen, he hit the indoor batting cage with fellow catchers Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart and worked on receiving balls and popping out of his crouch into a throwing position. Then Posey took batting practice and elicited warm applause and shouts of encouragement from fans with an assortment of opposite-field line drives and big-boy home runs over the fence in left.
His work complete, Posey sat in the dugout for a 15-minute question-and-answer session with the media. He’s more a doer than a talker by nature, but he spoke from sense of professional obligation — and the realization that it’s better to be the focus of attention for one day than have reporters parading through Scottsdale Stadium every day for the next month asking him about Scott Cousins.
Posey even cracked a joke about his prowess against bench coach and BP pitcher Ron Wotus.
“A four-seamer coming in at 55 [mph],” he deadpanned. “I tend to square that one up.”
After so many months as an object of sympathy and a resident of injury rehab limbo-land, it was probably good to feel normal again.
A welcome sight
Posey’s return is heartening to a San Francisco team that never recovered from his four-month absence from the lineup last season. The Giants ranked 29th in the majors with 570 runs scored — a big dropoff from their total of 697 in 2010. Cody Ross and Aaron Rowand are gone, Pat Burrell has retired, Carlos Beltran signed with St. Louis as a free agent, Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera are new to the outfield, and the Giants need a 550-bat dose of Posey in the middle of the order.
Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Cleveland’s Carlos Santana have taken some time finding their groove offensively because of the pressure and time demands heaped upon young catchers expected to bond with pitching staffs. Posey, in contrast, hit the ground running. He arrived in the majors in May 2010 at age 23, with barely 600 professional at-bats on his résumé, and collected six hits in his first two games as a Giant. He never stopped hitting on his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award.
“I’ve talked to Mike Matheny about this,” Cain said. “A catcher might be a great hitter. But you’re calling a game and constantly getting beat up behind the plate. You go to hit, and maybe you just took a foul ball the inning before, so you’re not always feeling super-great. It’s not easy to do.”
San Francisco’s pitchers love throwing to Posey because he’s so emotionally invested in the process. He’s blue-collar enough to get down and dirty and block pitches, and he loves the sense of collaboration and teamwork involved in devising a game plan. Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong remembers making starts last season, seeing Posey in the weight room the following day, and having lengthy discussions about pitch selection and strategy.
Vogelsong, who made his first All-Star team at age 33, threw to Posey once in the Cactus League and delivered rave reviews to pitching coach Dave Righetti.
“I walked off the field and told Rags, ‘He’s the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to,'” Vogelsong said. “You can tell when a guy is guessing and when he’s confident. Every time Buster put down numbers, you could see the purpose of what he was doing. It wasn’t just, ‘Well, let’s see if this works.’ That’s reassuring. From a young guy like that, you don’t see it very often.”
Posey’s ability to grit his teeth and stoically endure such a traumatic injury said something about his fortitude. In hindsight, the incident is a case study in how time can harden some opinions, produce a dialogue to change others, and test a man’s personal will so that he comes out stronger on the other side.
Burying the past
Giants general manager Brian Sabean looks back at the incident and recalls how scary it was. He was watching the game with Dick Tidrow and some of his other front office lieutenants, and the entire booth went silent because no one could tell if Posey had broken his neck, hurt his back or blown out a knee. So when the collision came up during a subsequent radio interview, Sabean went on a rant against Cousins.
“If I never hear from Cousins again, or he doesn’t play another day in the big leagues, I think we’ll all be happy,” Sabean said last June.
Not long afterward, Sabean apologized to Cousins, and they exchanged viewpoints on the play in question.
“It was a combination of my frustration and my protective nature,” Sabean said Sunday. “I’m a player development and scouting guy, and I’m really protective of players, whether it’s the 25th man on the roster or the guy you’re about to release.”
The Giants still think Cousins could have avoided the contact, but with the benefit of time, Sabean can better understand the confluence of circumstances that led to the collision. Cousins was a Bay Area kid running on “adrenaline,” according to Sabean, and had to make a split-second decision. Like Posey, he played in a college environment where baserunners are prohibited from running over catchers. Neither player had a whole lot of experience with something like this.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy, meanwhile, continues to lobby Major League Baseball for a rules change to safeguard catchers in harm’s way. Bochy wants baseball to institute a sort of demilitarized zone for catchers who are waiting for throws from the outfield or in vulnerable positions where they’re not braced for contact. He compares it to a fair catch in football.
“I’m still going to push for a way to protect these kids behind the plate,” Bochy said. “We’ve made adjustments in our game, and so have football and hockey. I think it’s time. I’ve talked to some managers who are for it and some who aren’t. It’s hard to take away that collision at the plate. But at the same time, the runner should have to go for home plate and not the catcher.”
This year, Bochy has instructed Posey not to be a hero and block the plate, regardless of what his instincts tell him. “I’ll take it out of Buster’s hands,” he said. The Giants would rather sacrifice a run here and there than risk ruining their young catcher’s career.
As for Posey well he’s been too busy living life and piecing his career together to dwell on the past. In August his wife, Kristen, gave birth to twins. That was a welcome diversion from the drudgery of rehabbing. By January, Posey began to feel the sense of anticipation building by the day.
Now that spring training has arrived, there will be little adjustments every day. Posey is trying out a new catcher’s mask designed to reduce foul tip-related concussions, and he plans to get in some work at first base in anticipation of playing there once a week during the regular season. But over the long haul, Posey still envisions himself as a catcher.
“I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “After a couple of months, there were some thoughts that maybe it wouldn’t be bad to move. Then the more I thought about it, I realized how much I enjoy catching. As hard as I’ve worked to get back behind the plate, I want to catch for as long as I possibly can.”
Posey has yet to talk to Cousins about the incident. But there are no traces of bitterness in his voice, and he says he believes that Cousins was genuinely sorry about what transpired the night of May 25.
For now, all that matters is that Posey’s outlook is positive, his swing is pure and true, and his ankle feels pretty darned good.
“It’s progressively better and better,” Posey said. “It’s a little sore when I first wake up in the morning. But after a few steps, it feels normal.”
Literally and figuratively, Posey is content to take things one step at a time. Given all he’s been through so far, that’s a fitting way to end the story.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
Crasnick: Posey positive in his return from knee injury
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