Gruesome collision leaves Senators catcher battered but unbroken...

Patrick McDermott

Each week, Geoff Morrow, Harrisburg Senators beat writer for the PennLive.com and Patriot-News sports, updates us on the goings on down on the farm with the Washington Nationals' Double-A affiliate.

[ed. note - "The following was originally posted on PennLive.com this morning and is reprinted with permission of the author, a frequent contributor to Federal Baseball. A link to the original post can be found below."]

It lacks the cane-wielding doctor and the mood-inducing soundtrack, but Brian Jeroloman's offseason plays out like an episode of "House."

Show opens with the Eastern League baseball playoff game on Sept. 4, 2013: Harrisburg Senators at Erie SeaWolves.

It's a tie game, seventh inning, and SeaWolves runner Brandon Douglas breaks from third on a grounder to second. The throw to Jeroloman, the Senators'™ catcher, arrives at roughly the same time as a barreling Douglas.

Crash.


Dazed (both guys). Bloodied (Jeroloman). Sick to the stomach (everybody who watched it, either live or on video.)

The catcher is eventually helped off the field and taken to an Erie hospital. The game continues. Harrisburg rallies to win.

More than a week later, and after four scary nights in the hospital where Jeroloman battles not only a concussion but serious complications from a deep cut on the left side of his neck, the catcher returns to Harrisburg and throws out the ceremonial first pitch before an EL finals game against Trenton.

Jeroloman says he feels fine, and he does. The season ends. Everybody goes home. We'll see you at spring training.

But Jeroloman won't be fine for long.

Neck pains, then headaches

For maybe three weeks after his release from the Erie hospital, Jeroloman says he's OK.

Then his neck starts to hurt.

"I had this incision on the front part of my neck that went two inches deep, and that's what really freaked out a lot of people when I was in the hospital..." - Senators' C Brian Jeroloman on damage from home plate collision

"I had this incision on the front part of my neck that went two inches deep, and that's what really freaked out a lot of people when I was in the hospital," Jeroloman says before a recent Senators game at Metro Bank Park. "That was the biggest concern."

Because it's weeks after the collision, the Gainesville, Fla., native figures the neck pain derives from a sleeping issue. Maybe he needs a new pillow?

Jeroloman is cautious enough to call the Nationals, with whom he re-signed a minor league contract in the fall with an invitation to big league spring training. Before any action is taken, though, the neck pain vanishes.

"They'd already had me go through a small rehab process at the beginning of the offseason," Jeroloman says of the Nats, "and I passed it with flying colors."

The neck pain gone, the 28-year-old is excited to soon resume playing baseball.

Two swings into his first batting practice session, though, Jeroloman is nearly floored by an intense headache in the back left portion of his head.

"I didn't know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke, maybe a migraine. I'd never had a migraine before..." - Senators' C Brian Jeroloman on effects of home plate collision

"It was unique," he says. "I didn't know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke, maybe a migraine. I'd never had a migraine before, so I thought maybe that's what this was."

He tries again the next day, but the baseball activity again triggers a headache. Same spot. Same intensity. Only this one lasts nearly 20 hours.

When that headache dissipates, Jeroloman finds himself visiting Wal-Mart to do some shopping. The bright lighting of the store triggers another headache, this time in the front above his right eyeball.

"Felt like it was pulling my eye," he says. "But I don't want to tell anyone. I'm freaked out, but I didn't want to tell my wife, and I especially didn't want to tell my family what I was going through."

They'd been through enough, he thinks, witnessing his home-plate collision and remaining by his side through his hospital stay in Erie.

"I hate calling and saying something's wrong. I mean, I'm a catcher. We're supposed to go through painful stuff." - Senators' C Brian Jeroloman on dealing with effects of collision

Roughly a week after these headaches develop, though, Jeroloman caves and again calls the Nationals.

"I hate calling and saying something's wrong," he says. "I mean, I'm a catcher. We're supposed to go through painful stuff. But after about a week dealing with both headaches -- any activity triggered the back left, bright light triggered the front right -- it was excruciating.''

A national discussion ensues

Sparked in part by the visual of the Douglas-Jeroloman pileup, Major League Baseball and the national media heighten discussions about the suddenly hot topic of home plate collisions.

Everybody, it seems, has a strong opinion. And many who watch the video of the September crash begin attacking Douglas, calling him a dirty player.

Funny, because nobody from the Senators says anything evil about Douglas, a 6-0, 200-pound 28-year-old infielder who's now playing for the Detroit Tigers'™ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo.

Then-Senators manager Matt LeCroy says it was clean. Teammates agree. Even Jeroloman, though he's never seen the footage and doesn't fully recollect the actual collision, says it was fine.

"Was I excited about what happened? No, but there was no rule saying anybody did anything wrong." - Brian Jeroloman on collision at home being within rules

"I lived it, and it was a clean play in my eyes," says Jeroloman, who checks in at 6-0, 205 pounds. "Was I excited about what happened? No, but there was no rule saying anybody did anything wrong."

He hasn't watched the video, he says, because he doesn't want to get mad over something he did or something Douglas did when he's already at peace with it.

(Nothing illegal was ruled on the play, and after the collision dislodged the ball, Douglas crawled to the plate and was ruled safe.)

"Brandon reached out to me a few times apologizing, and I said stop it,'' Jeroloman says. "I said, 'You played the game hard, and keep playing the game hard.' Because those are the types of players I want to play with."

Douglas, who doesn't exactly remember the collision either, at first doesn't think it's that big of a deal. Everything changes when he watches the replay a day later.

"After I saw the replay, I had this feeling in my stomach like, 'What did you do?'" - Brandon Douglas on collision w/ Brian Jeroloman

"After I saw the replay, I had this feeling in my stomach like, 'What did you do?'" Douglas says in a recent phone interview.

For the next couple of days, Douglas keeps asking for updates on Jeroloman, and every day he's told Jeroloman is just fine. Nobody even tells Douglas that the catcher is in the hospital for days.

Feeling sick about it once he learns the truth, Douglas gets Jeroloman's number, ships him an apology text and earns the tough-love lecture in response. Jeroloman demands he stop apologizing, insisting he was "playing the game the right way."

"It felt like the weight of the world came off my shoulders," Douglas says. "I was taking shots on the Internet, in tweets, and to hear him say that made me feel a lot better.

"I'm not proud of what happened. Only reason why I did it was it was a tight game, a playoff game, and I wanted to score a run for my team. I've been fighting it through the offseason, the new [collision] rule. Do I like it? Do I hate it? I'm OK with it, but if the catcher is blocking the plate, you want to score the run."

Jeroloman, not surprisingly, is sought by national media for his thoughts on the debate and, ultimately, the new MLB collision rule, which effectively prohibits runners from initiating crash contact at home plate in order to prevent serious injuries like those suffered by Jeroloman or San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey in 2011.


He rejects media requests.

"Doesn't matter what answer I give, it's going to be the wrong answer," says Jeroloman, whose only post-injury interview until this week was through his college (University of Florida) in his hometown of Gainesville.

"My family wanted the rule changed, of course, because they don't want to see another family go through that. But if I said yes to the rule change, well, technically I'm not a catcher." - Senators' C Brian Jeroloman on rule change for collisions

"My family wanted the rule changed, of course, because they don't want to see another family go through that. But if I said yes to the rule change, well, technically I'm not a catcher. A catcher is supposed to be tough. And if I say no, well, now I'm going against the commissioner of baseball."

Months of excruciating pain

Jeroloman marries his longtime girlfriend, former UF gymnast Savannah Evans, in late October, a joyous occasion in an otherwise agonizing offseason.

Once the catcher swallows his pride and takes that necessary step to tell his family and the Nationals about the headaches, he essentially becomes medical property.

Brilliant minds from all over, including the Nationals and the University of Florida --“ doctors, neurologists, concussion experts -- take turns examining him, testing him, searching for the cause of his headaches.

"I’m a direct person, and I will always tell the truth," Jeroloman says. "So I expect straight answers. And I kept getting answers from the smartest doctors in the world like, ‘I think it could be…’ or ‘It might be…’ or ‘We believe…’

"These are not straightforward answers."

Jeroloman isn't blaming the doctors, but he is growing frustrated -- and, at times, even angry -- at the uncertainty surrounding his situation. His career is at stake here, and spring training is fast approaching.

About two weeks before he's supposed to report to Nationals camp in Viera, Fla., he visits with one of the many doctors desperately searching for answers.

Near the end of the exam, Jeroloman says, while the doctor is applying physical pressure up and down his spine and across the back of his neck, it finally happens.

The doctor hits the exact pressure point.

Jeroloman's back left headache suddenly rages.

Once Dr. Andrew H. Ahn of Gainesville verifies the location of the trigger, he sprints out of the room, Jeroloman says.

"He didn’t jog. He didn’t walk fast. He ran out the door," Jeroloman says. "So now I think I’m about to die."

Instead, Ahn returns with a spinal-cord expert, Dr. Robert W. Hurley, who introduces himself to Jeroloman by saying, "I know exactly what is wrong with you."

A direct statement.

With mere minutes left in the show, House brilliantly saves the day.

An injury usually observed only in autopsies

Turns out the whiplash from the collision, Jeroloman says, is so severe it's usually observed only through autopsy.

"They said, in a sense, I was lucky I made it. That’s why they couldn’t connect the dots." - Senators' C Brian Jeroloman on what doctors told him

"They said, in a sense, I was lucky I made it," Jeroloman says. "That’s why they couldn’t connect the dots. Because this is not something you think about."

As Jeroloman explains – as it was explained to him – the whiplash injured a nerve in the back of his neck. And this nerve, surrounded by ligaments, can take three weeks to swell, which explains why he feels mostly fine after his initial release from the Erie hospital.

But the injury moves, so to speak, Jeroloman saying it’s like "a domino effect" striking neighboring nerves. This is when the headaches develops.

The cure, it turns out, is "killing the nerve."

Before the surgical procedure, doctors numb the nerve, and Jeroloman immediately feels fine. They even send him straight from the hospital to the batting cages to engage in the same activity that originally triggered the headaches.

Nothing. No pain.

Two days later, doctors surgically kill the nerve, which Jeroloman says is regenerating.

And while there’s no extensive rehab needed to recuperate from a procedure like this, Jeroloman is out of baseball shape when he arrives for spring training thanks to months of forced inactivity.

So he works himself back into shape, spends an extra three weeks in extended spring training, then finally rejoins the Senators’ roster last week, making his first start Friday night vs. Bowie at Metro Bank Park.

Oh no, not again

Wouldn’t you know it, but the second inning into Jeroloman’s first official contest since the collision, an opponent singles to left, and left fielder Destin Hood comes up firing in an attempt to snag a runner trying to score from second.

Hood unleashes a strike. Jeroloman positions himself up the line, his left foot on the powder. The runner approaches. Jeroloman catches the ball, swipes to his left and nails the runner. Out.

"I didn’t think about [the Douglas collision] at all, especially in the heat of the game," Jeroloman says of his welcome-back play at the plate. "If you ever doubt or think about something during that type of play, it’s over.

"Just like a pitcher about to throw a curve ball who tells himself, ‘Don’t leave it up.’ Well, he’s going to leave it up. It’s going to happen. So if I would have thought differently, I probably wouldn’t have even caught the ball.

"The only thing that did cross my mind was don’t block home plate because of the new rule."

(If a catcher is completely blocking home plate without the ball, the runner will be ruled safe; likewise, if a runner takes out a catcher who’s in proper position by allowing a lane to slide, he will be ruled out.)

If Jeroloman isn’t thinking about the collision, new Senators manager Brian Daubach and the rest of his teammates certainly are.

"When I came in [to the dugout], the guys asked me how that felt," Jeroloman says. "I was kind of awestruck, like, ‘What are you guys talking about?’"

"To me plays at the plate are exciting. They’re game-changers. Those are the types of plays that change the outcomes of games and really swing the momentum."

And, for Jeroloman, it simply remains a part of the game he loves. He knows what he signed up for. He won’t change, months of excruciating headaches and uncertainty be damned.

Douglas won’t change his style either, despite the fact that even "talking about it now still makes my stomach upset."

"I wish nothing but the best for him," Douglas says. "He was gracious to respond to me [in September], and I wish him nothing but the best. Maybe I’ll send some more text messages to him. "And they will say, ‘I’m sorry,’ in them."

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