He likes to say every day is an adventure now. Used to be Rusty Begnaud would slip on a uniform, tug up his socks, curl the bill of his cap just so, amble to the mound and grip a baseball, feeling its scars and bruises before trying to sneak 85-mph fastballs past hitters. That seemed like quite the escapade then.
Blue-colored food is a real adventure. Takes some kind of a stomach to ingest dyed rations so doctors can monitor your lungs and ensure they don't fill with more fluid.
Turning over is a real adventure. The first time Begnaud tried, he couldn't do it. Same for the second time, and the third time, and on and on. Even now it's a struggle, a strapping 26-year-old reduced to teaching himself things he learned before he turned 1.
Painting is a real adventure. Because his fingers no longer move, Begnaud uses a special instrument and, with only the atrophied muscles in his arms guiding his hand, makes jagged brushstrokes.
And yet how beautiful was the first piece he finished: A Major League Baseball logo, the symbol of what he wanted to be and no longer can, Begnaud reaching back one last time only to be jerked forward by reality.
Baseball was everything for Rusty after, as a 6-year-old, he told his daddy, Calvin, he wanted to play football.
"Son," Calvin said, "you're part of a Cajun family. You're not going to get too big."
So he'd play baseball like his daddy, and like his daddy's daddy, Voorhies Begnaud, who at 75 still travels to competitive softball tournaments. He'd play even though he did grow, to 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, because baseball had become his identity and love.
"It was everything," Begnaud said. "It was my livelihood since I was a kid. I was fortunate enough to play in the minor leagues, and I was just trying to hang on. I was having a good year in Florida. I had some teams looking to sign me. I was at a great point in my career.
"And now," he said, "all I know to do is get out of bed in the morning, get back in at night and survive everything in between."
The most dangerous question a quadriplegic can ask himself is why, because there never is a right answer.
Why did Rusty Begnaud have to go to the bathroom around 11:30 p.m. last June 20? And why did somebody else have to be in there, which made him head back outside? Why did someone then suggest he and his friends from the Pensacola Pelicans, the independent baseball team in Florida for whom the right-handed Begnaud pitched, jump into the pool? And why did Begnaud dive into the shallow end, with only three feet separating the crest of the water and the concrete below it?
"Just a freak accident," said Begnaud, who said he was not drinking that night. "I remember everything. I didn't lose consciousness. I remember the guys helping me out of the water and doing the best they could."
His body, from the neck down, tingled. His brain was what felt numb.
"I knew right away there was a problem and it was pretty serious," Begnaud said. "I was scared. I didn't know what was going to be next."
An ambulance. The intensive care unit. Worst-case scenario reports. You might not regain any movement, one doctor said. Your fracture is a C5, another said, four vertebrae down from the top of your spine. We need to put you on a ventilator. Don't move your neck too much, because the halo is sensitive.
No, not even to watch baseball.
Earlier that day, Begnaud had won his American Association-leading sixth game for the Pelicans, lowering his earned-run average to 2.70. A few more of those starts and a big-league organization surely would pick him up, and he'd have another chance to prove the Kansas City Royals wrong for not bringing him back following the 2005 season.
Instead, he was here, unable to move, struggling to breathe, sustained by pureed food. As Begnaud stabilized and doctors readied his move to the Shepherd Center, a top rehabilitation facility in Atlanta, small tics of movement returned. Eventually, he started to breathe on his own, and when visitors came with sandwiches from his hometown of New Iberia, La., he gorged dutifully.
Daily therapy sessions helped acclimate Begnaud to his new life, not so much erasing baseball as introducing a new objective. Slowly, he regained the 50 pounds he had lost. Uncontrollable spasms tore through Begnaud's muscles, and he needed to grit out the pain until doctors learned to control them.
On July 28, Begnaud learned to wash his face and brush his teeth.
"We get excited over the little things he does," his father Calvin said.
Begnaud spent three months at Shepherd, Calvin living next door in what his wife and Begnaud's mother, Patricia, deemed "the bachelor pad." A few days before the baseball season ended, he took his first long trip, about eight miles down the road, a 15-minute jaunt in the car with Calvin. At Turner Field, the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros awaited his arrival. Braves pitchers John Thomson and Lance Cormier, friends of Begnaud's, awaited. Craig Biggio took a picture and signed an autograph. Astros general manager Tim Purpura invited Begnaud to Houston. He toured the Braves' clubhouse, and if he could only muster a small movement to shake a hand, or clap, or just stick his thumb up.
Everyone settled for a smile, including the staff at Shepherd, which sent Begnaud back to New Iberia on Oct. 27. He continues his therapy three days a week at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center while using an FES – functional electrical stimulation – bicycle at home that pumps his legs a few miles, same as Christopher Reeve did.
He has started to find himself again by glomming on to all he could from the past. Which explains Begnaud's latest goal, pegged toward summertime: He wants to renew his driver's license.
"My accident did not change who I am," he said. "It only changed the way I do things."
The numbers slip from Steve Palermo's mouth without hesitation or thought: 15 years, six months and 24 days.
He will never forget how long it's been since he was paralyzed. No one does.
"It's this philosophical thing: Is it better to be born blind, or to have sight and be just old enough to realize the beauty of the world and have that sight taken away from you?" said Palermo, the former major-league umpire who was shot in the back as he tried to chase muggers off two waitresses outside a Dallas restaurant. "With a spinal-cord injury, if you're not born with one at birth, you've done all these things – jumped high, run fast, thrown hard, swung a bat – and it's taken away from you.
"You now have two birthdays. The first birthday is a present to your parents. The next one is the lowest part of your life."
On July 16, three days after Begnaud received a tracheotomy that helped him speak again, Palermo called his room at the Shepherd Center. He wanted him to know that the worst was gone, that even though he can't move, can't feel, can't walk – simply can't – a friend of his once said, "Can't never did nothing."
"Difficult tasks take a long time," said Palermo, who now walks with a cane. "Impossible ones take a little longer."
Begnaud could because he had. Though he didn't pitch until his senior year of high school, he was recruited to walk on at Louisiana-Lafayette. From there, he moved to McNeese State, where he won 14 games over his final two seasons. Kansas City picked him up as an undrafted free agent – the biggest kind of can't in baseball – and he was named to the Rookie-level Arizona League All-Star team.
"He just does," Calvin said. "Because now he has to."
Begnaud calls himself "crafty." Before he outwitted hitters with a fastball that hovered more than zoomed, with a breaking ball that broke only sometimes. Today he sees a chair and wonders how best to transfer himself from it into his wheelchair, his legs nothing more than dead weight.
"It's kind of like pitching," Begnaud said. "You take the good days and bad days and make the most out of them."
At Stephens Center, where Begnaud may return in April or May, he received an award for Most Likely to Talk the Most Smack During Therapy. He laughed, just as he did when his younger brother, Paul, gave him a T-shirt with a handicapped logo.
The shirt's punch line: I'M IN IT JUST FOR THE PARKING.
He makes light because each day brings him closer to merging his lives. Begnaud knows he won't pitch again. He isn't sure he'll walk, either. The fracture is so far up the vertebra, and the rehabilitation is so taxing, and – well, perhaps he can get back into baseball on the management side of the game, as a scout, or a front-office type, or something.
"You don't come to terms with it," Palermo said. "You deal with it, try to overcome. I'll walk across a floor and carry a can of Coke and glass in my left hand with my cane in the other, and I'll trip and stumble and drop it. I don't ever remember, pre-injury, where I just fell on the ground and Coke went flying all over the place. That doesn't stop me from going back to the refrigerator and getting another can."
Nor will it stop Begnaud. Sometimes during rehab, he will squint at his right hand. It is the one he uses on his wheelchair's joystick, the one he'll eat with, the one he'll use to click the remote. He'll focus his energy toward the knuckles, praying for the slightest sign, anything to make him believe that one day he'll control his fingers again, and that he'll be able to reach down, and there it will be, a baseball, ready for him to grip, scarred and bruised, just like him.
Then Rusty Begnaud will know. The accident may have changed who he is, but it couldn't change what he loved most.