It was a year ago Monday when Robinson Chirinos underwent a life-altering experience.
A fastball from Josh Lueke deflected off a bat and into the facemask Chirinos wore behind the plate while catching the final inning of a Grapefruit League game against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates.
Seemed harmless at the time. Chirinos remained in the game but an hour later he found himself on the way to the hospital with a concussion.
His spring training was over.
His season was over.
There were days, Chirinos said, when he woke up dizzy and nauseous with blurred vision and wondered if his baseball career was over, as well.
“It was tough to wake up with that feeling every day,” Chirinos said. “At one point I was like is this going to go away or is it going to stay for a long time. We know in his game you can’t stay away too long because it’s hard to come back. Thank God I came back in the best shape of my career.”
Chirinos was very much in the Rays plans last spring training. He batted .218 in 20 games during the 2011 season. He drove in seven runs – six of which came during a span of two days. Not exactly all-star numbers, but Chirinos was showing improvement behind the plate and was working better with the pitchers – two requirements for Rays catchers.
It was Chirinos who was supposed to push Jose Lobaton for the spot as the other half of the catching with Jose Molina.
Now, the Rays have to see Chirinos play this month to determine what kind of an impact missing a full season will have on his development.
Chirinos, who returned to the field during the September instructional league and played a handful of games in the Venezuelan winter league, feels the negative impact from the injury will be minimal.
“I just feel amazing. Everything, throwing, hitting, running,” he said. “I know I was out for a year, but I worked when they cleared me to play baseball. I did everything to prepare, and I feel awesome. I was working every day to get here in the best shape. Thank God I’m here showing everybody I’m healthy and I’m ready for this year.”
Chirinos thanks God often during the course of a conversation, and that is also a result of what happened on March 11, 2012.
The real life-altering moment occurred around 8:30 that morning.
It was a Sunday, and on Sunday mornings more than a handful of Rays players attend Bible study.
“That day I accept Christ in my heart,” Chirinos said, “and that afternoon I got hit in my head.”
“I accepted God that morning,” Chirinos said, “and that afternoon I get hit? I was like, ‘Come on.’ ”
But, Chirinos said he believes things happen for a reason, and he is determined to make the best of what became a very bad and potentially career-killing situation.
“That’s the way I see everything in my life,” he said. “Sometimes people see bad things from the bad side. For me, it was bad to me, it drive me to accept Jesus Christ in my heart. It drive me to have more time to work and prepare for baseball. Right now I accept everything. It was hard last year but to know God was there for me. I think he was the one who really pushed me every day and said, ‘Hey, everything is going to be OK,’ and thank God everything is fine.”
He and Lueke even joke about the incident.
“It was one of those freak accidents,” Lueke said. “But we don’t even mess with playing catch. I stay clear away. I don’t want to have anything crazy happen. Let’s just avoid it. It was crazy, but I’m glad he’s back.”
As a catcher, Chirinos said there is no avoiding getting hit with foul tips. Happens all the time. And getting hit in the face with a foul tip was something Chirinos was looking forward to when he was cleared to play.
“It’s like a pitcher who had shoulder surgery and wants to throw and see how it feels. It was the same with me,” he said. “I wanted to get hit to see if it would come back, would it feel the same after I got hit. Thank God it didn’t. I’ve been hit a lot of times.”
Had Lueke’s pitch been a hair slower or a tad faster, had the batter squared up better or not made contact at all, had the ball struck the mask a fraction of an inch higher or lower, or had Chirinos been able to get his mitt up in time to catch or deflect the ball, then who knows how 2012 would have played out for Chirinos.
But Chirinos said he doesn’t dwell on it any longer. He took the full brunt of the hit, suffered the consequences and, he said, came back stronger.
“He was determined to come back better,” Rays utility fielder Ben Zobrist said, “and he did. He’s a better baseball player and he’s a better man.”