ST. PETERSBURG — Robinson Chirinos was never so happy to get smacked in the mask by a baseball.
The haunting symptoms from the concussion he sustained six months earlier finally gone, the medical people finally relaxing the restrictions and special handling and clearing him for game action, all that was left was for Chirinos to actually get back behind the plate.
He had run and thrown and swung the bat, he had caught pitchers in the bullpen, he had blocked balls in the dirt. But it wouldn't be until he got hit by a foul tip — which is what caused this whole horrible ordeal that March afternoon — that he'd know for sure.
"I was a little scared," he admitted.
In his second game with the Rays' instructional league team in September, he took one in the mask. All good. Then again the next day. No problem. He went back to his native Venezuela for a couple months of winter ball, and it was just like normal.
"I was like, 'All right, when I get hit, let's see what happens,' " Chirinos said. "The best part was it was nothing. I got hit a lot of times. And I felt good."
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When the Rays open spring training this week in Port Charlotte, Chirinos, 28, may be the happiest of the 60-plus players to be there, eager, to put it mildly, to resume his once-promising career after essentially losing an entire year.
"I'm ready to go," he said. "Everything is fine. I'm back to where I was before."
Acquired from the Cubs in the January 2011 Matt Garza trade, Chirinos played a month for the Rays that summer, the high point an Aug. 4 celebration when he had a tying single in the 11th and a walkoff hit in the 12th.
He came to spring training last year with a shot, albeit long, for the backup catcher's job, but that all changed on March 11.
There were two outs in the ninth inning of a game against the Pirates when the Josh Lueke fastball grazed a bat and slammed into Chirinos' mask. He shrugged it off like catchers do, told assistant athletic trainer Paul Harker he was fine and finished the inning.
"We get hit all the time," Chirinos said. "You get hit, you get dizzy for a little bit and you come back. And it was the same."
Chirinos went back to the dugout as the Rays rallied in the bottom of the ninth, but something suddenly felt very wrong.
"I felt okay at first, but five minutes later it was getting worse and worse," he said. "By the time I got to the clubhouse I was throwing up."
Head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield administered the MLB-mandated concussion tests, but the evidence was obvious. He called for an ambulance and Chirinos, still in uniform, left the clubhouse strapped to a board on his way to a hospital.
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The first couple of months were terrible.
Chirinos would spend most of his days in the sheltered environment of a Port Charlotte apartment, but he couldn't tolerate much beyond simple — and somewhat halting — conversation without getting dizzy or nauseated. He couldn't drive. He didn't eat much.
His wife, Haidy, and then-4-year-old son David came from Venezuela, but there was only so much they could do for him.
Stimulus was one problem, concentration another.
"I would sit on the couch and talk to my wife," he said. "It was hard. I would read like three lines and I was getting dizzy. TV was good for a few minutes and then I would turn it down. Same with the computer. Even my phone — sometimes my family would text me a lot but I was calling them back because I couldn't read too much."
The Rays had him come to the complex for evaluation and light exercise during down time, when the other players weren't there or out on the field, so they could keep the training room quiet and the lights down.
The nights weren't much better. Chirinos couldn't sleep for more than two-three hours, depriving his brain of the much-needed rest to heal. It wasn't clear to the medical staff whether that was symptomatic of the concussion or the anxiety racing through him as he wondered about his health and career.
"It was hard knowing I was going to go to bed and know the next day I would be feeling bad again," Chirinos said.
Eventually they found the right medicine to get him to sleep. Visits to the sports concussion center at the University of Pittsburgh went well, specialist Dr. Michael Collins quelling Chirinos' frustration at the lack of progress and convincing him he would get better. Vision therapy helped. So did a call from Baltimore's Brian Roberts, who had gone through similar issues.
The fog, which lasted longer than usual, finally began to lift. By mid August, Rays minor-league medical coordinator Joe Benge started to slowly incorporate baseball activities into their sessions. A month later, Chirinos was ready to get back behind the plate.
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As horrible as the experience has been, Chirinos found some good, spending extensive time reading the Bible and immersing himself in faith, remaining remarkably positive.
When fans and teammates asked during January's Venezuelan league how he was, Chirinos said it was no longer a question. "I was like, 'I really appreciate you guys worrying about me, but I feel like that was 2012, that is in the past,' " he said. "And I thank God it's over with."
The Rays are eager to welcome him back. "He's full go," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He got behind the plate a number of times this winter and felt good. We're excited to watch him play in camp and get him back on track to getting up here and helping us win games."
That couldn't sound better to Chirinos.
"I tell my family that I feel like God brought me here to the Rays for a big purpose," he said. "I know I belong here and I'm going to be here and I'm going to help the team win games and hopefully win that World Series that everybody wants.
"I have a good feeling that it's going to be a great year."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]