SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. He couldnt walk for three months.One surgery rebuilt his ankle. Another removed the screws. When he returned to baseball, no single activity was pain-free. No amount of treatment could take away the soreness, the stiffness, the unpredictable breaking of scar tissue.As for the mental scars, they are as raised and raw as ever. He cant forget or forgive the baserunner who vaporized him on that awful night.This is not Buster Poseys story. This belongs to Todd Jennings.Nobody wants to sign an injured catcher, said Jennings, a former Giants prospect and second-round pick out of Long Beach State. Im going to these open tryouts and some of these people have no business being there. Had one with the Dodgers last week. Did really well, too. Im in the best shape of my life, finally feeling 100 percent.But its hard. Its hard when nobodys seen you play in four years.Jennings, like everyone else, saw replay after replay of Poseys collision on May 25. It began with a fly ball and a throw from the outfield. Posey dropped right fielder Nate Schierholtzs one-hop heave. Florida Marlins pinch runner Scott Cousins, as if shot from a sling, delivered a targeted, shoulder-to-shoulder blow.Posey had fallen to his knees. He was a sitting duck.Same exact thing, dude, Jennings said.For Jennings, AT&T Park was Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. His Scott Cousins was a blocky, Triple-A outfielder named Mitch Maier. It was May 2, 2008, and the first inning. Fresno left fielder Justin Leone caught a fly ball and heaved his throw. It was up the line.Jennings fell to his knees. He was a sitting duck.Both plays were sacrifice flies. Both times, the catcher paid it.Both times, Schierholtz was the right fielder.I dont recall all the specifics, said Schierholtz, of that cool night in Nebraska. But Ill never forget the hit.It was worse than Poseys collision. Maier was bigger than Cousins. Jennings was smaller than Posey.Absolutely blown up, Schierholtz said. It did not look good. It was very, very similar to Busters collision. Obviously, we didnt have a replay over and over. But he lowered his shoulder. He got killed. Complete yard sale, stuff flying everywhere.It was hard to watch that happen to a friend.This spring, Schierholtz and his teammates are watching with hope and optimism as Posey straps on his gleaming gear, catches bullpens, takes batting practice and runs the bases. He remains the golden child of the organization, the first star position player drafted and developed since the days of Will Clark and Matt Williams. He is expected to bring his lamp to the cleanup spot and guide a league-worst offense out of darkness.But more than nine months after the collision, Posey is not healed. Not yet. And nobody can understand his pain better than Jennings.I know, said Jennings, who tore an MCL in his knee in addition to multiple ankle ligaments in his crash. Hes going to find its tough mentally more than anything. You want to come back and perform, but the ankle and the whole situation hinders you from doing what you normally can.At where he is now, nine months, hes just going to be real, real stiff and its going to affect his performance because the ankle is pretty critical for being a catcher. Hes not going to be as mobile blocking balls and stuff like that. Your range of motion, you just dont have it because of all the scar tissue. No matter how much you do to loosen it up, its still there.Hell be all right, but this year will not be easy. Hell have to be patient have to be.Posey knows what lies ahead. He spent the offseason working with Giants physical therapist Tony Reale, who has remained in contact with Jennings. Plenty of NFL players have recovered from three torn ankle ligaments. Jennings is one of few test cases for a catcher.The big questions to be answered this spring, beginning Friday when Posey plays for the first time in 288 days: How much can he catch? Is 100 games too much? Or 120? Or will his ankle tolerate much less? On days he doesnt catch, should be start at first base? Or will his ankle require complete days of watching, powerless and jacketed, from the dugout?Jennings cannot provide a perfect comparison. Posey is more than nine months removed from the injury. Jennings was barely six months out when he went to play winter ball in Mexico.But I know if he plays on it every day for two months, hes going to be done, Jennings said. It was killing me after three weeks. So if Im running their team, Id give him just three or four games a week to start, at least for the first month or two.Posey wont be in the lineup every day this season. But hell spend all 162 in the trainers room. Dave Groeschner has prepared Posey for that reality. Itll be hour after dull hour on the table, alternating ice and heat.Everyone wants him to be perfect, but hes going to have bouts of soreness all year long, said Groeschner, the Giants head athletic trainer. He knows that. Weve talked about that. Its just about trying to manage it as best we can, knowing that hes going to play a lot.The nice thing about spring training is it can be much more controlled than the regular season. Were trying to add things in incrementally to see how he tolerates it, how he feels, and so far, its been good.Will he get tired of staring at those ceiling tiles in the trainers room?He already is trust me, Groeschner said, with a faint smile. This year its going to be a necessary evil. We know he doesnt want to be in there, but hes dealing with it pretty well.Jennings is still dealing with the fallout. Its hard to forget that night in Omaha when its your last in affiliated baseball.After Mexico that winter, Jennings was invited to major league spring training with the Giants in 2009. Still sore but managing his knee and ankle, he reported early with the other catchers. Posey was in his first big league camp and Jennings remembered taking a liking to the kid.We got along well, Jennings said. Wed go down in the cages and sit on the pitching machines, hang out and talk.The first week of camp wasnt yet over when Jennings was taking part in a throwing drill. He felt something pop in his elbow. Tommy John surgery. Another 12 months, gone.This time, nobody barreled him over. His wind got knocked out nonetheless.Jennings rehabbed his arm on the Giants tab, but the club released him in the spring of 2010. The organization had too many other catchers. Hed been passed up on the chart.So Jennings found independent ball. In one season, he was a Newark Bear, a Long Island Duck, a Bridgeport Bluefin. He was traded twice in a week. The bank took his condo. When he called his agent, seeking intercession, he couldnt get a call returned.Last year, he found a home with the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks in the American Association. They treated him well there. If the Dodgers dont call, he plans to go back now a 30-year-old catcher amid part-time plumbers and hangers-on, still chasing the dream.He keeps in touch with Schierholtz, Sergio Romo and a few other ex-teammates. He was thrilled when the Giants won the World Series in 2010, even if he had to watch with hands pressed against the glass.He honestly believes he has what it takes to reach the major leagues.I just did four moths of combat training, he said. Im in the best shape of my life. Im throwing as good as ever, so why should I stop playing?Therein lies the hope. Jennings said Poseys ankle wouldnt limit him forever.Its gonna take a solid year, but its gonna heal, Jennings said. It took me at least a year to be 100 percent and not feel anything to be able to run and cut. He might start off slow, but Id expect him to be 100 percent after the All-Star break, barring any setbacks. And in the long run, with all the rehab, its going to be a lot stronger. Now my leg and knee are stronger than they ever were because of exercises I kept doing.But its mental, man. He went though the ultimate mental test. Hey, I applaud him for that. Im sure he has a good family too to stand by him, because its frustrating to watch on TV and not be a part of it. Its hard for me being in Arizona and not having a team to play for.One other detail from that night in Omaha: Mitch Maier was called out.Jennings held onto the baseball. He holds onto it still.When Jennings was thrashing around in pain and shock, his left leg numb and the rest of his body throbbing, Maier did not do what Cousins did. He did not reach back to offer a gentle hand on the shoulder. He made no contact whatsoever.Mitch Maier never called, never texted, nothing, Jennings said. That still eats me. I havent played a game in affiliated ball since that day. Thats why maybe I think (Posey) might have handled that the wrong way by not accepting an apology. But thats his decision.Make no mistake. Jennings isnt questioning Poseys character. He has nothing but admiration for him. By the time Posey guts through this season, Jennings expects to admire him all the more.He knows Posey's story. It belongs to both of them.It makes you, in the long run, a better person, Jennings said. Buster is a great kid with a good head on his shoulders and I think youll see hell be even better after this. Hes going to come out hungry. You watch, hes going to get on some of these other guys.Hell be a better person. Youll see. I guarantee it.
The man who knows Posey's pain
March 9, 2012, 4:22 pm