SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Before undergoing the first of two surgeries, before months of mindless rehab, before the daily daggers of stretching scar tissue and before he could even think about getting back on a baseball field, Buster Posey had to complete one obstacle.
He had to get home.
No part of that was easy on the night of May 25, 2011, when the Giants’ catcher and cleanup hitter sustained a horrific left leg injury in a targeted collision at home plate.
Posey already knew before the X-rays confirmed it: He had a fractured fibula. That much he could feel through the skin, when he dared to reach a hand below his knee. More seriously, he also sustained a complete dislocation of his left ankle. All three ligaments had torn completely through.
His foot was useless. His season was over. And while nobody that awful night used the words “career ending,” Posey and those who attended to him privately wondered the same thing:
Could he ever hope to be the same player again?
But first, Posey needed to get home. And when he finally arrived back at his rental house in Orinda, well past 2 a.m. and with his leg immobilized in a cast, he stared up at the stone walkway that included a labyrinth of stairs.
His wife, Kristen, six months pregnant, helped him manage the climb.
So many others helped Posey keep climbing from there.
There was Dr. Ken Akizuki and Dr. Larry Oloff, who mapped out a surgical plan along with 49ers orthopedist Michael Dillingham. There was Dr. Robert Anderson, the Carolina Panthers’ orthopedist and the nation’s foremost specialist in sports ankle injuries, who offered his opinion. There was athletic trainer Mark Gruesbeck, always ready with an ice pack, physical therapist Tony Reale, who varied up the exercises just enough to keep Posey from glazing over, and physical therapist Dave Matoso, who drove up from his practice in San Mateo to meet Posey at AT&T Park every day when the Giants were on the road. There was manager Bruce Bochy, too, who made sure he never overtaxed Posey once he returned – even if that meant catching some flak when his best hitter wasn’t in the lineup for a late June game against the Dodgers.
Most of all, there was Dave Groeschner, the Giants’ head athletic trainer, who served as part therapist, part counselor and, after all those monotonous exercises, treatments and discussions, a fast friend.
Dave and Buster.
“More like Buster and Dave,” Groeschner said, grinning. “I got to know him pretty well by the end of it. And one of the things I came to realize about Buster is that he’s super regimented. He wants to know what to do. `Here’s this week, here’s next week.’ We’re looking down the road, of course, but he wants a plan and he wants to see it.”
The view was ever so grand by the end of last season. Posey won the NL Comeback Player of the Year award, sure, but that was just the beginning. He collected an NL MVP trophy, the Hank Aaron Award winner as the NL’s best hitter, the Willie Mac Award as the Giants’ most inspirational player, and yes, a second World Series championship, too.
Groeschner called Posey the morning of Nov. 15, when the MVP award would be announced. He knew it would be crazy and a million people would be tugging at his plaid shirttail. But he wanted to touch base.
And when Posey was announced the winner on live television, Groeschner was watching.
“Very, very cool,” Groeschner said. “It was kind of a rewarding feeling and not just for me, or our doctors, or my team. It’s about Buster and what he did. He’s just a special player. Special guys can play at a high level even when they’re not at 100 percent. To me, he fits in that category.”
But perhaps the true reward came over this past week. The Giants are seven days into their workouts and Posey hasn’t taken a day off. He isn’t catching bullpens every other day. When the squad ran first to home, Posey was right in the middle of the relay pack, making smooth left turns with no cameras trained on him and no nervous supervision.
Groeschner felt rewarded when Posey became an MVP. He feels an even greater sense of accomplishment now that Posey is just another player.
“It’s the miracle of modern medicine,” Bochy said. “It really is unbelievable, to look at him now as if it never happened. Dave Groeschner was with him from day one. He was just relentless, and of course, Buster, had the work ethic and determination to get through this.
“I mean, this was devastating. I’ll never forget jogging out there. We all knew instantly what he’d have to go through to get back behind the plate. It looked like a car accident.
“You felt so bad, so awful, for what he was going through. I can’t imagine the pain he had to endure. It broke our hearts.”
The Giants traveled to Milwaukee two days after Posey’s injury, more numb than angry. Groeschner stayed behind, and when he went to see Posey in Orinda the day after the collision, he looked at those stairs and shook his head.
“Buster, what are you thinking?” Groeschner told him. “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
The club helped Buster and Kristen relocate to a single-story house. It was part of the initial goal: manage his pain. But the hardest days were yet to come.
Bill Neukom, the Giants’ managing partner at the time, told Groeschner to spare no expense to make sure Posey received the best possible course of treatment. When all opinions were assembled, the Giants presented Posey with one of two surgical options: Insert two screws to stabilize and bring together his tibia and fibula, which had splayed apart, or use a newer technique that involved a tension wire. The screws would require a second surgery to remove them. The rope-like structure, if he chose it, would stay in his ankle for life.
Posey didn’t hesitate.
“I preferred the option where it wouldn’t permanently change the structure of the ankle,” he said. “I knew the screws were going to have to come out, but that was probably better in the long run.”
Even if it led to some odd sensations in the six weeks in between surgeries.
“It was weird,” he said. “Toward the end I could actually feel the head of the screw pushing through the skin. It didn’t bother me that bad. It was more weird than anything.”
Just prior to the procedure, Groeschner gathered the surgeons together:
“We had to put any egos aside,” Groeschner said. “I told them, `We have to get this right.’”
The surgery went as planned, and took 90 minutes.
“We’re talking about a severe, major injury – a complete dislocation,” Akizuki said. “And you’re not talking about getting a guy back to playing beer league softball. This is an elite athlete. We’re trying to not only make him functional again, but get him back as close as possible to what it was before the injury.”
As soon as the anesthesia wore off and Posey had his wits about him, he asked Groeschner how it went.
“Then he says, `My twins are coming in the middle of August, and I need to be walking by then,’” Groeschner said. “He couldn’t have his wife taking care of him, too. He needed to be mobile. That was the first thing he was worried about – how his injury would affect his family.”
In terms of pain, the next few days were the worst. Imagine the pulling, dull ache of getting braces on your teeth for the first time. Now imagine that being your leg, and the pain amplified 1,000 times.
“My leg had spread out and the bones were crammed back together,” Posey said. “I don’t think I slept through many nights that first week.”
You have to crawl before you can walk, but Posey was a long way from doing any of those things. He could not bear any weight in the six weeks between reconstructive surgery and the second procedure to remove the screws.
So the challenge was twofold: How to keep him in some degree of condition, and how to keep his mind occupied through five-hour sessions on the trainers’ table.
Posey took the lead in a few ways, researching and adhering to a nutrition program to ensure he wouldn’t get too soft. Groeschner would cut a slit in his cast so he could massage the leg gently in an effort to alleviate swelling. Sometimes the treatments lasted for half a day. Posey listened to music and did what any former Dean’s List student would do: He devoured books.
Dan Brown thrillers went too quickly. He moved on to American history, especially Civil War history.
“It surprised me how quickly reading could make the time pass,” he said.
Posey used an arm bike so he could burn calories with his upper body. Once he graduated from a cast to a boot, he was allowed to hop on a stationary bike.
“We’d tell him to give us 20 minutes and he’d do 50,” Groeschner said. “The guys who were here in 2011 saw it. He’d be pedaling when they went out for batting practice, they’d come back and he’d still be there.”
It wasn’t easy for Posey to hear the roar of the crowd muffled through those walls in the trainers’ room. But he didn’t allow himself to think about the following spring or about the next play at the plate. Groeschner never let him think more than two weeks ahead.
“That was the most important thing they did for me,” Posey said. “They didn’t get too far ahead. It was two weeks at a time and they’d say, `This is what we’re trying to accomplish. You might be further ahead than this, you might not.’ They helped me have something within sight that I could strive toward, and at the same time, be realistic. They were honest that they didn’t know for sure where I’d be, because everybody heals at different rates.”
Posey was a fast healer, it turned out. He met his first important goal when he began walking in time for the birth of his son, Lee Dempsey, and daughter, Addison Lynn.
Then it was time to work on the rest: The squatting, the throwing, the catching, the hitting and the baserunning. He went to the Giants’ spring training complex in Arizona in mid-September and stayed through Nov. 1.
He caught a couple of mound sessions in instructional league. Then when the prospects left for home, Posey stayed and caught against a pitching machine. He’d squat, catch a pitch, spring back to his feet, then squat again.
Groeschner worried that all the stress of catching would be difficult for Posey’s ankle to bear. But all the squatting actually helped break up the adhesions in his ankle ligaments.
By the time the Giants sent him back home to Leesburg, Ga., under orders for a full month’s rest from the mental and physical grind of rehab work, Posey had nearly recaptured every bit of his previous range of motion.
That month of rest was crucial, Groeschner said. If the injury had happened any later, Posey would have had to keep working straight through to be ready by opening day. And if that were the case, he probably would have worn down in the second half.
Instead, Posey hit .385 in the second half to win the first batting crown by an NL catcher in 70 years.
BACK TO NORMAL
The Giants were ultra careful with Posey last spring. Even though he appeared uncompromised, he was still dealing with soreness – especially with the hard fields in Arizona. The club delayed Posey’s Cactus League debut until the second week of games. They slowly ramped up his innings and avoided using him on consecutive days.
Posey insisted he had no mental issues or fears with getting back behind the plate. But the Giants were concerned about something else.
“He’d run sprints, but turning was something else – especially left turns,” Groeschner said.
And running from the batter’s box to third base wasn’t exactly an option. Baseball is a game of left turns.
But Posey gradually put Groeschner at ease there, too. They ran soft S curves in the outfield and worked their way up to 90-degree cuts on the bases.
“He got his motion back and healed up great, got his whole body strong, too,” Groeschner said. “But the last bit was the toughest.”
He passed all the tests, and continued to receive rest days even when he didn’t feel he needed them. Privately, Bochy hoped Posey could start maybe 100 games, with a decent chunk of those at first base.
Posey ended up starting 143 games, including 111 behind the plate.
And now he is just another player, running from first to third, quietly putting on his catcher’s gear every day, only icing on rare occasions – and probably getting a lot foggier on his American history.
But when Bochy says it’s like the injury never happened, Groeschner smiles knowingly.
“That’s a coach talking right there,” the trainer said. “But he’s right. A fan who showed up and watched him today would never guess.
“The truth is, this is something he’ll have to continue to work on throughout his career, and we’ll have to stay on top of it. He’ll wear orthotics for the rest of his career. Those cracks, snaps and pops he’ll have the rest of his life. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a couple more bouts of soreness.
“But you do watch him now, and it’s amazing to think just a year ago we were hoping he could run bases.”
Posey said he was glad to cooperate for this story, and give doctors and athletic trainers permission to speak freely about his medical history, because he wants them to be recognized for all their work to put him back together.
It's especially rewarding for Groeschner because he's been on the other side. He had worked his way up through the Giants' minor league system and was the assistant trainer to Stan Conte for two seasons before he left to join manager Dusty Baker for the Chicago Cubs in 2004. Groeschner lasted only one year at Wrigley Field because pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood both got bit by major injuries, and Groeschner ended up taking what many baseball officials believed was an unjustified fall. He came back to the Giants and became head athletic trainer when Conte left for the Dodgers in 2007, and his standing within the industry has continued to grow.
Taking a player with a serious, traumatic injury and helping him win an MVP award the following year? That would count as a career achievement for anyone in his position.
But it’s not Dave and Buster. Groeschner wants to make sure the names are in the right order.
“Most of all, the kid busted his ass,” Groeschner said. “That's what amazes me. His motivation to get back is probably the biggest story in all this.”