Scott Cousins moves on from home-plate collision | NevadaAppeal.com

Scott Cousins moves on from home-plate collision

JANIE McCAULEY AP Baseball Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Behind the batting cage at Benedetti Diamond, Scott Cousins is at ease.

Wearing a green University of San Francisco baseball hoodie, shades and sporting a beard, he has no trouble blending in with the college kids around him.

Within the green fences of the baseball complex at this Jesuit school, Cousins has found the home he never had growing up – among the men he considers family, the coach he cherishes as a second father. The Hilltop, as it’s known, provides the perfect place for Cousins to rehabilitate lower back and hip injuries in relative anonymity.

It’s also just a couple of miles from AT&T Park. That’s where the Florida Marlins’ rookie outfielder gained notoriety five months ago for a frightening collision at home plate that ended the season of Giants catcher Buster Posey, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year.

“That’s why I’m growing out the beard,” Cousins joked. “As a disguise.”

It’s here that he offers hitting tips to former college teammate and current workout partner Stefan Gartrell while waiting to get his own work done – no swings yet as he returns to health.

“This is his safe haven,” said longtime Dons coach Nino Giarratano, who has supported Cousins through his ordeal. “This is his family. He’s a wonderful kid. He’s a man now. We’re lucky to have him.”

Cousins was instantly vilified, but those close to him know a different story. They talk of the time in Arizona two weeks after the collision when he approached an 18-year-old woman in a wheelchair, her mother and their friend and offered them tickets and field passes for a Marlins-Diamondbacks game.

He is the man who proposed to his girlfriend of five years, Mandy Short, last Saturday – and flew in a couple of her close friends to help celebrate. Short’s mother is a widow, so Cousins asked for her permission to marry. The couple met during his junior year and final season at USF.

“This is a hero’s journey,” Mandy’s mom, Laura, said during an engagement party last weekend. “He has been tested beyond belief not just in his childhood, but in his baseball life. The sport he loves so much and the town he loves so much turned on him. They crucified him. What an up-and-down rookie year. To his credit, personal or professional, he always takes the high road.”

To this day, some say Cousins is the reason the Giants are on their couches this October instead of trying for a repeat World Series championship. This is the same guy who was in the stands during last fall’s playoffs rooting for San Francisco once his own season ended.

Cousins’ father would like people to know his son for the person he is, not simply for one debated baseball play.

“I don’t want him to just be remembered for that,” said Steve Cousins, a carpenter who raised three children as a single dad and was always on the lookout for extra work to pay for his son’s sport. “We never had enough money, but we didn’t have a bad life. We had a happy life. It just so happened I loved baseball and Scott was pretty good at it. We bonded through that.

“I didn’t graduate high school. My whole goal was to make the kids not like me.”

Cousins, a middle child, spent parts of his youth homeless in Reno, Nev., where his dad searched for steady work and always told his son to “never get a B.” Not once did Cousins cause trouble from the time he began living full time with his father at age 8 until leaving for USF.

The family often lived in motels – “never a home we built, never a stable home,” Cousins said. His mother was in and out of their lives.

“Kind of an Army brat without the Army,” Cousins said, sharing some personal and emotional stories from his upbringing in an interview with The Associated Press. “Technically, we were homeless, but never sleeping outside or in a homeless shelter.”

They had baseball.

Once his dad was done working for the day, they’d head to the field. Cousins would swing until his “hands would bleed.” When he didn’t have his own baseball, Cousins hit rocks off a tee – or his dad’s beat-up coffee cup. From age 9 on, he played baseball year-round, determined to build a future.

While he didn’t have the money to join a traveling team, his talent attracted scouts and college coaches. Cousins became the first in his family to attend college and is a semester shy of a business degree.

He was third in his high school class of about 300 with a 3.97 GPA. That’s after he changed elementary schools roughly seven times – Cousins lost count – and spent the second half of his senior year in high school living with a family friend along with his father and younger brother.

“He’s gone down a long, hard path. To go through your whole life and not drop the ball once, maybe some people have heard of that, but not me,” Steve Cousins said.

Baseball gave Cousins a purpose, a distraction. It still does in many ways. When he steps into the batting cage, Cousins can forget all the other stuff – like being unpopular because of one play.

“Why am I sitting on the pity pot because people don’t like me?” Cousins said of his credo.

The 26-year-old Cousins sheds a layer on a warm fall day in the Bay Area to reveal a long-sleeved gray Marlins shirt. He insists he’s “not famous enough” to be recognized – even in Florida gear. Gartrell, the Braves’ Triple-A Player of the Year, teases his friend that he wouldn’t like him as much without such a compelling life story.

Cousins ponders everything that happened during that May 25 game, with his family and friends in the stands as he got his chance to pinch hit with the score tied.

He hadn’t played the night before, yet was thrilled to see 40,000 fans in the sold-out ballpark he has loved for so long and to see his name was on the main center-field scoreboard.

“I’m jacked up, like, ‘Wow, this is awesome,”‘ Cousins recalled. He commissioned Mandy’s engagement ring during that San Francisco stop, too.

On the play, Cousins sprinted home with several things running through his mind.

He figured on a routine slide, though months later reminds himself that his life has been anything but routine. When he saw Posey in position to get him out, Cousins made the split-second decision to try to knock the ball loose because he thought Posey had caught it – though the catcher never controlled it. Cousins scored what wound up as the winning run in a 7-6, 12-inning victory.

“The perfect storm,” Cousins calls it.

Would things have been different had he laid down a better bunt so John Buck ahead of him wouldn’t get forced out at second? Or if Buck, who caught the entire game, had been fresh on the base paths trying to get to second? Perhaps if Emilio Bonifacio’s sacrifice fly hadn’t been so shallow to right field, where Nate Schierholtz has one of the game’s best arms? Or, if he had made another decision altogether?

“It was so strange,” Cousins said. “It was like something had to balance it out. It was like something had to happen, because in my life it’s always happened. It’s just kind of the way things have gone for me in my life.”

Cousins grew up a Giants fan, his dream to one day play in orange and black.

“He wanted to be a Giant and I think he still does, surprisingly,” his fiancee said.

After splashing a home run into McCovey Cove in a game against California – with Giants general manager Brian Sabean in the stands – during his All-American junior season as a pitcher and outfielder in 2006, the left-handed-hitting Cousins hoped San Francisco would draft him.

In the aftermath of Posey’s devastating injury, an emotional Sabean – the father of five boys with a sixth on the way – called out Cousins on the radio. Shocked and saddened by the injury, Sabean defended his player as he would anyone in the organization, no matter his stature.

“If I never hear from Cousins again, or he doesn’t play another day in the big leagues, I think we’ll all be happy,” Sabean said at the time. “He chose to be a hero, in my mind. If that’s his flash of fame, that’s as good as it’s going to get, pal. We’ll have a long memory.”

Sabean expressed privately and later publicly that his anger was misplaced toward the person rather than the play itself. He reached out to Cousins to apologize. The Giants also issued a statement and Cousins released one of his own.

“That hurt a lot, especially coming from the guy I wanted to play for forever,” Cousins said. “That got to me. He stirred up this hurricane again that was just starting to settle.”

After the collision, there were a half-dozen death threats and a bout of depression to go with the nagging injuries.

It has taken time for him to come to terms with it all. Everybody is eager to move on – Cousins, Posey, Sabean.

“The depression issue is like a herniated disk. It’s something you can always keep at bay if you’re prudent. That’s just my style,” Cousins said. “I’m not going to let anything get the best of me. If that would have been the case, I would have cashed this in at age 16.”

For so long, Cousins hoped just to speak to Posey and have some closure. When that didn’t happen, he decided that Posey must be under way in his healing (the catcher is recovering from a broken bone in his lower left leg and three torn ligaments in his ankle). Now, Cousins needed to heal himself.

USF is part of that process.

Cousins has returned to his school to work out every winter since the Marlins selected him in the third round of the 2006 draft. Yet this offseason is markedly different because of “the incident” – as he refers to it – that is still so fresh for a city that was celebrating an improbable World Series title just under a year ago.

Cousins was the little-known rookie who clobbered and seriously injured the franchise superstar.

“I was basically run out of town by a lynch mob,” Cousins said. “I’m not going to be afraid of my own shadow. I’m not going to walk around with an apology letter on my back. That’s not the way life is lived. I’ve apologized till I’m blue in the face. It’s not going to change anything. I’m not going to stop living my life. I’m not going to be scared. I have big plans.”

Cousins didn’t play for the Marlins again after June 12, spending the rest of the season on the disabled list. And, no, he didn’t get hurt that night. His troublesome back has been bothering him for 2 1/2 years.

Six days a week, Cousins makes the short walk from his home to campus to work out and rehab. He will begin hitting off a tee Nov. 1.

“He helps all the guys, and it’s genuine,” said former Dons pitcher Matt Hiserman, now on Giarratano’s staff. “It would be easy for him to come and get his work in and not talk to anybody.”

Cousins couldn’t watch the replays of the collision on TV. He didn’t sleep well for days. Pete Rose – who ran over catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star game – would later come to his defense. Umpire Jim Joyce, part of his own controversy last year when his blown call cost Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game, offered support.

“At the end of the day, it’s a baseball play,” Cousins said. “It’s a play that we get paid to make and that fans pay to watch. It’s an unfortunate part of the game, but it’s a necessary part of the game. That’s where I’m at with that. That’s it. There’s no other way to put it.”

Cousins is ready to start fresh next season – just as he did after nearly walking away from USF as a homesick freshman.

He stayed put playing for Giarratano and became West Coast Conference Player of the Year and an All-American, then eventually a major leaguer. He hopes one ill-fated moment doesn’t define his career.

“I’m still on the roster. I’m still kicking,” Cousins said. “My plan this year is to get in the best shape I’ve ever been in and come back with something to prove. I feel it’s my time to do something really great in this game.”