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Sugar Shane Robinson: After Grisly Collision, “I’ve been very blessed…”

(Below is a piece I started writing about Shane Robinson after Winter Warm-Up in 2012, after the 2011 season. I was never able to finish it – until now – so all of the dated references apply to nearly a year ago. I still felt it was worth sharing.)

It’s been more than a year since Shane Robinson and Andrew Brown collided in the Memphis Redbirds outfield. The latter suffered a concussion. The former went 3 for 5 with a home run Thursday night as the St. Louis Cardinals’ starting center fielder. It’s a far cry from where many thought he would find himself this season.

“I’ve been very blessed,” said Robinson, standing behind the podium at Winter Warm-Up in St. Louis. “With all the things that have gone wrong, some of the things that have gone right…I’m just very positive. I’m in a good situation right now and very fortunate with everything.”

The view from this side of Robinson’s rehab experience is much brighter than it was the night of his accident. Most of us have seen video of Brown and Robinson converging on a fly ball, colliding head-to-head, and finally collapsing in the left-center field grass. But to hear his description of that night in eerie, first person detail goes beyond a simple minor league highlight reel.

“I hit somebody and there was just ringing,” he said with the practiced, even tone of a survivor whose told this story before, “And then I kind of felt the pain on the side of my face…so I was awake for all that stuff. I think (Andrew) was out for a little bit, and then I could hear him about a minute later mumbling something.”

What came next more closely resembles a scene from a Wes Craven movie.

“I remember getting put on the ambulance,” he said, “And I remember trying not to pass out just ’cause it was so painful, I felt like I wanted to pass out. I was trying to fight it. I started getting nauseous, and I was strapped into whatever the gurney thing is. I started freaking out and having a panic attack, so that made them flip me over on my side in the back of the ambulance. I was basically holding myself against the wall, and I had to undo the strap on my stomach ‘cause I was so nauseous from the pain.

“It was a scary thing.”

He would spend that night in intensive care with a fractured orbital bone in his face. At the time, the facial injury appeared to be the most serious area of concern. It was, after all, the pain of the facial fracture that caused Robinson to “freak out” in the back of the ambulance earlier that night – but as he describes, the injuries to his face proved to be easier to recover from than one may expect.

“It was two weeks and I was cleared to go with my face,” Shane said. “I guess a lot of basketball players get the same injury, from what the doctor told me. And he said, ‘I usually let them guys go after two weeks,’ or something like that.”

Of course, that’s not to say he didn’t struggle.

“I had trouble opening my mouth,” he explained, “And it took me about two months to where I could open it fully again.” In fact, had he been allowed to return to baseball action so soon after his injury, Robinson acknowledged he “might have had something covering” the affected area of his face.

But the question of protective headgear would never be a concern. Another injury – also sustained during the collision in April – would emerge as the primary obstacle to Shane’s return to professional baseball.

“I didn’t know about my hand until I was in the emergency room,” he said. “They were asking me ‘is there anything else on you that hurts,’ and I kind of just evaluated myself. I could feel some pain in my hand, and I said ‘yeah, I think I jammed my finger.’ I remember them saying ‘we’ll just get an x-ray on that too.'”

“So they basically were x-raying my spine and everything and threw my hand in there at the end.”

What began as an afterthought would become the most enduring, painful aspect of Robinson’s rehabilitation. From surgery and rehab to learning a new way to play the game, it was his hand that would require the most time and attention before returning to the level he was accustomed to in St. Louis.

“I went to Jupiter,” he said, “And was in the Gulf Coast League for a while. That was kind of re-teaching myself how to hit again with my finger messed up. It took me about a week. I got in a little rhythm and figured out how to get by with what I had.”

But it soon became clear that hard work and learning how to hit with a hand that no longer functioned the way it had just months before weren’t the only factors in reclaiming his position in the organization.

“They were going to send me back to Memphis. That was when Allen (Craig) had gotten injured, so he was going to report there within a couple days, and they were like ‘if you go back up there, you might not be playing as much.’ So we wanted to figure something else out.”

At Shane’s suggestion, the team decided Springfield – the club’s double-A squad just three and a half hours south of St. Louis – would be the ideal spot for Robinson to gain traction and regain some forward momentum.

“Fortunately, I did pretty well down there,” he said, “And Mo was there, saw me play and asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing good and with what I have I feel like I can perform. So he basically made a call and I went back to Memphis, even when Craig was there, and played and was fortunate enough to get called up in September.”

That call-up came just in time to be part of the 2011 Cardinals’ epic march to the NL Wild Card spot after finding themselves 10 games back in late August – a run that would not end until an unlikely victory in Game 7 of the World Series delivered the 11th World Championship to St. Louis. After such a tumultuous comeback experience of his own, the significance of such an unlikely promotion was not lost on the young outfielder.

“It was huge,” he said, wide-eyed for emphasis. “When you have – back two years in a row – when you have major injuries, major surgeries, you can’t help but think ‘is somebody trying to tell me something?’ I don’t want to believe it, but is this happening for a reason? It helps going through the shoulder the year prior – being down, learning how to stay positive and not worry about those things.”

Robinson continued to push, setting his focus on what could be waiting for him at the end of his recovery. It was not a lesson he learned alone.

“I had a lot of support from my wife and family,” he said, “And they pretty much got me through it. I honestly think those things happen for a reason. It wasn’t fun doing any of that stuff – probably the worst pain I’ve had is rehabbing my finger back – but it was more gratifying getting back to the big leagues after all that. It made me humble. I realized that nothing is set in stone, and I have to keep working to get where I want to go.”

His injuries are behind him now, his recovery complete, and talk of a fresh new season of pain-free possibilities brings a heavy sigh of relief, as if the act of exhaling also serves the double-role of expelling the burden of any lingering doubts. But reminders of his experience will forever remain.

“I have a plate above my eye, below my eye,” he said, “And then I have three screws in my finger. It’s pretty pain free now. Obviously in the cold weather it stiffens up a little, a little soreness, whatever you want to call it, but once it gets loosened up, it’s fine. I don’t have 100% movement yet in there…”

Pausing to stretch out his arm, he slowly squeezes at nothing to demonstrate his inability to make a complete fist. The first two fingers on his hand close perhaps 75%, knuckles still pointed outward.

“…But I’ve been doing rehab in Atlanta pretty much since I got home. It’s gotten my strength back in my hand, and I’m able to hit now without really feeling anything anymore.”

Finally feeling healthy, and trying to draw on what those recovery experiences have taught him, Robinson feels his goals this season have more to do with how he approaches the game rather than simply trying to stay healthy enough to play it.

“I think the main thing is just to stay level headed,” he said. “I think it’s a part of growing up, part of becoming a big league player. Understanding those ups and downs, you can’t always control your situation, but you have to basically deal with the hand you’re given and make the best of it. That’s probably my main focus this year – just stay positive.”

A sudden, slight twist of his mouth, a subtle smile, says there’s more.

“And I have some other things going. My wife’s pregnant, she’s due in May, and I’m going to be a father. Those things will take my mind off anything negative on the field.”

After congratulations are passed around the media room, Robinson nods his head, thanks those in attendance, and then shrugs. His smile is back. He looks relaxed and sincere.

“I’ve been very blessed,” he said, perhaps for the fourth time this afternoon. “I’m very fortunate with everything I’ve been blessed with.”

A Bit More…

*Robinson feels the experience in the GCL was well-timed. “I think it was actually good I went to the Gulf Coast League, ’cause those guys are fairly young and I got to kind of get my nerves out with people I really didn’t know well in the outfield.”

“I had talks with a couple of the outfielders out there, and I was like ‘look, I just got in a huge collision, so I’m screaming. If you hear me, just stay away.’ I didn’t mean to get them scared of me or anything, but you know, it’s just being around a younger crowd, new guys I don’t know and haven’t seen play.”

*Robinson discussed Andrew Brown near the end of the media session. He said a lot of guys came to see him in the hospital, but not Brown. Shane felt Brown was afraid Robinson blamed him for the collision. When Shane returned to the field, Brown approached him.

“He pulled me aside and basically told me he was terribly sorry for that. I told him, ‘man things happen, it’s baseball, it’s not a big deal.’ I wasn’t mad at him at all. I watched on film and it basically split us pretty good. It was one of those balls you had to call right at the end. So I’m sure we were both calling it, didn’t hear each other.”

GO CARDS!!!

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