LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – As his wife and their two young sons lay on the ground, Giselle in agony from multiple broken bones and one son’s face covered in blood, Braves newcomer Sean Rodriguez wasn’t thinking about baseball or his own health.
That was just over three weeks ago, Jan. 28, a day that Rodriguez will never forget, as much as he might try.
“It’s mostly a blur,” he said. “Naturally, I’m trying to keep it that way. I don’t want to remember too much about it.”
Rodriguez, with his surgically repaired left shoulder in a sling, sat in the Braves’ spring-training dugout Sunday at Champion Stadium and spoke publicly for the first time about the accident – a stolen police car plowed into the SUV that he was driving one afternoon near his Miami home – and about the mental and physical condition of him and his family.
“My wife and my kids are alive and I get to kiss them and say goodnight to them and love them every day,” said Rodriguez, 31, “so for that I’m just grateful and blessed. So it’s hard to look at any of the negatives or the bad stuff.”
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A versatile veteran who signed a two-year, $11.5 million contract with the Braves in November, Rodriguez was expected to start the season as their primary second baseman. That changed Jan. 28, and he’ll likely to miss at least the first half of the season after having surgery Tuesday to repair a severely torn rotator cuff, damaged labrum and biceps tendon that had to be relocated.
The initial off-the-record assumption was that Rodriguez would probably miss the entire season, but both the player and Braves officials now say they won’t be surprised if he makes it back at some point in the season.
“My goal is to get back as quick as possible, because I still intend on contributing to getting to a World Series and intend on contributing to win a World Series,” Rodriguez said. “That’s always been the goal and it’s never going to stop being the goal.”
“He’s in good spirits,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s been through a lot, both with the wife, his family and that (surgery). That’s a lot to put on a guy. But he’ll be fine. He’s like, ‘I’ll be back sooner than later.’ I think he’s confident in himself and his body that we’ll probably see him this year.”
General manager John Coppolella: “He’s such a special guy. It’s a shame what happened, but if one person has got the faith and the attitude to deal with this, it’s Sean. And he’s very motivated to come back — to come back this year, and to come back and be a big part of our team as we push to have a special season.”
Asked if an in-season return was a legit possibility, Coppolella said, “Yeah, it is. Look, we’re not going to give any dates or timetables. We’ll just see how it goes. Sean’s a fighter and he’s going to try and do the best he can.”
The person driving the stolen police cruiser was killed – he had stolen it minutes earlier as it sat outside a fast-food restaurant — and the car burst into flames after T-boning the Rodriguez vehicle in an intersection. A passerby stopped and assisted in getting Rodriguez’s children out of the SUV.
The family was going to see Rodriguez’s nephews play in a baseball game at nearby Tamiami Park in West Miami-Dade County when the accident happened. Rodriguez’s two young daughters were in another car going to the game.
Zekiel, 2, was briefly hospitalized with internal bruising in the hip and groin area, said Rodriguez, while 7-year-old Sean Jr. — he goes by “Gogo” in reference to his high energy — was in the hospital longer with what Rodriguez said were “a few lacerations on the head, a slight fracture of the orbital (bone) underneath the left eye and a fractured right arm.”
Their sons didn’t require surgery, but Giselle had two broken bones in one leg, broken ribs and a wrist injury that required surgery.
“But they’re doing amazing right now,” Rodriguez said. “You wouldn’t even know it by how they’re getting around. My wife’s doing really good. (The) emotional (aspect) was my biggest worry and she’s 10 times stronger than me. I told her, you had four kids, this is a piece of cake. She’s been amazing.
“She’s doing well. She got the bulk of it. though, with the femur and the tibia and fractured wrist and three broken ribs. But you wouldn’t know it now if you spoke to her. She’s a trouper, man. She’s strong.”
Rodriguez had an X-ray and CT scan of his sore shoulder that day, which revealed no broken bones. The doctor told him at the time that he should have it examined further and have an MRI to make sure there was no soft-tissue damage.
Nearly two weeks later, Rodriguez was still in pain and knew he needed to get checked out.
“I know swelling can be bad from a bad accident, and once I saw the swelling had gone down and I couldn’t pick my arm up in any direction, I knew something was definitely wrong,” he said. “That’s when I reached out to my agent and we reached out to John and told him, hey, we’ve got to get checked out. We did that and I found out obviously there was a lot more going on than I would have thought.”
An MRI revealed the damage. The Braves quickly adjusted plans and revived trade talks with the Cincinnati Reds, acquiring veteran second baseman Brandon Phillips two days after learning of the extent of Rodriguez’s injury. He had surgery Tuesday by Dr. James Andrews at the famed surgeon’s clinic near Pensacola, Fla.
“I thought there might be something more than what I initially thought,” Rodriguez said. “You definitely always hope for the best, though. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. My faith is always in God and I know He can do absolutely anything, so I guess even up until they told me they were going to operate on me, I thought He could just reach in there and heal it.
“I can still tell you today He can probably heal it a lot faster than what’s going to happen naturally. It wasn’t until I was laying on the hospital bed and they gave me anesthesia that I said, man, this is the real deal.”
The Braves gave no timetable for Rodriguez’s return, but rotator-cuff surgery typically requires four to six months of rehab.
Rodriguez had his best season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016, playing seven different positions and setting career-highs in average (.270), home runs (18), RBIs (56), OBP (.349), slugging percentage (.510) and games played (140). He parlayed that into his biggest contract, a deal with an average annual value more than twice his previous high salary of $2.5 million in 2016.
The seemingly perfect scenario that unfolded over the previous year came to a crashing halt on a Saturday afternoon drive. But the way Rodriguez views it – and he’s had plenty of time to reflect – the misfortune of that day was outweighed by the positives then and since.
“Yes, grateful and blessed — I don’t see any negatives,” he said. “A lot of love and people reaching out — from fans, a lot of Atlanta fans that haven’t even gotten to know me that well. I’ve just gotten so much love and prayers and just thoughts and reaching out. It’s been amazing. Like I said, it just blurs out any of the negativity.”
Most of all, he said, is that his family was alive. Follow-up exams on his sons showed no brain or spinal injuries.
“I’ve always been a God-fearing man,” he said. “I’ve always felt like having God in my life has always kept me grounded enough to where I never allow myself to get too high, I never allow myself to truly put myself above or on top of anybody else like that. But no doubt, you definitely stare into your kids’ eyes a little more and into your wife’s eyes a little more. Definitely bask in that moment a little more, that you get to see them and play with them and kiss them. So yeah, there’s definitely a little (more) appreciation you can’t deny.”