he moment of realization for Sean Rodriguez came Sunday when he was playing with his kids, on the veteran’s first day off in a week during an injury-rehab assignment that saw him play 11 games in two weeks for four different Braves minor-league affiliates in Orlando, Rome, Mississippi and Gwinnett County.
“We were playing Wiffle Ball in the back yard and my daughter asked me, ‘Daddy, do you have to go play again tomorrow?’” Rodriguez said, smiling as he recalled the incident. “I said I do, and she asked which stadium. I’ve been traveling to a few. I said, the big one, SunTrust. She said, ‘Wait, does that mean you’re back with the team?’ I said yeah, baby girl, it means I’m back.
“So it’s a good feeling. It’s going to be really good.”
Indeed, he’s back, and far sooner than anyone thought possible after surgery in early February to repair extensive damage in his non-throwing shoulder following a car accident. An injury that many thought might take twice as long for full recovery has taken Rodriguez, 32, barely five months to overcome.
“I guess every now and then you doubt the power of God,” he said, “but this is a reminder not to doubt it. I mean, He definitely helped me get to where I am right now, because it’s going to be five months. That’s pretty miraculous
Rodriguez was activated Monday and immediately thrust into the Braves lineup at third base for a series opener against the World Series champion Cubs at SunTrust Park. His wife and their four kids were there to see it, after watching him get up early every morning for the past several months, since the brace and sling came, and go to the ballpark to work out and rehab for countless hours, both when the Braves were at home and when they were on the road.
His children couldn’t have been any more excited than he was Monday afternoon.
“Like a little kid on his birthday,” he said of his mental state before heading to the field for batting practice. “I mean, that’s what you want to do growing up, is play in the big leagues. I’ve been doing it for a while and I feel like it’s just been a refresher on how fortunate I am to get to play, and to be able to do it again this year, I’m excited.”
Torn rotator cuff, labrum damage, biceps tendon relocation – all that was repaired via surgery in early February, after Rodriguez was injured along with his wife and their two sons in a terrifying car crash when a stolen Miami police cruiser ran through a red light and crashed into the SUV that Rodriguez was driving on the way to a rec-league ballgame. Most thought he’d be lucky to play in September and would more likely miss the entire season.
“It’s very remarkable,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Rodriguez’s recovery. “Your hat’s off to him for the hard work and the dedication, and to the training staff for the hard work and dedication that they showed in getting this guy back. I had heard throughout the whole thing, all the doctors couldn’t believe how fast he came back.
“But if you came in here on Saturday morning when we were on the road, he’d be in the pool and working out. He was very dedicated to getting back.”
No one has ever questioned Rodriguez’s passion or work ethic. Many baseball fans outside Pittsburgh, if they knew Rodriguez, perhaps remember him best for the video of him angrily punching a dugout water cooler multiple times in 2015. He was front and center if another team dared start anything with the Pirates, a fiery, bearded presence with an intimidating stare.
But talk to him off the field and he’s soft-spoken, sprinkling most interviews with a reference to God, ready to talk at length when asked about his family.
His competitiveness was never channeled better than in 2016, when he had far and away his best season, playing seven different positions for the Pirates and setting career highs in batting average (.270), home runs (18), RBIs (56), OBP (.349), slugging percentage (.510) and games played (140).
The Braves signed him to a two-year, $11.5 million contract in November and planned for Rodriguez to start the season as their primary second baseman, then move him to a multi-position role when prospect Ozzie Albies reached the big leagues. But that was before the car crash and surgery a couple of weeks later.
“I told them right out of surgery that I was going to be back a lot sooner than they thought,” Rodriguez said. “I was taught young, you set your mind to something and just keep getting it and winning every day, just see what happens. Again, I’ve had a lot of good people around me, from Pete Cicinelli (Braves major league performance therapist), to Andrew Hauser (director of player health and performance) and the training staff.
“I mean, just every day, working and grinding. God put the right people before me and it definitely helped me to get where I’m at. Like I said, the reality was, I said right out the gate that I was going to be back, and I made my mind to it and thank the Lord that I’m here.”
One glance at rehab-assignment stats might suggest that Rodriguez could’ve used another few games in the minors. He went 3-for-39 (.077) with one double, five walks, 12 strikeouts and a .191 OBP in 11 games, including 1-for-18 in five games with Triple-A Gwinnett. But Rodriguez and the Braves were interested not in the results but how he felt, whether he was ready mentally and physically.
“It’s tough coming in at midseason in Double-A or Triple-A, wherever it is you’re going, they see you step in the box with one ear flap (major league player on rehab) and they’re bearing down,” Rodriguez said. “And I’ve got several things on my mind between how my body’s going to feel, what my shoulder’s going to feel like if I actually swing the way I can, which is pretty violent. I mean, that’s my typical swing, so I’m trying to feel for that.
“And at the same time I don’t get those first couple of weeks (of spring training) where the pitcher’s trying to work on their fastball and their arm action, stuff like that. I’m getting in there with these guys already ready to go. It was a battle, but I kept trying to stay focused on what my task was, which was to see where my body was, to see if I can get everything to where I wanted to, and I felt like I did.”
Snitker said, “I talked to Seitz (Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer) the other day and he was watching all his at-bats and said he looked good,” Snitker said. “It doesn’t surprise me when those guys go down (and struggle during rehab assignments). As long as he’s healthy. I mean, he’s a proven big-leaguer.
“So, he’s ready.”
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