SAN FRANCISCO – Giancarlo Stanton was here Saturday night, upright, strong, smiling and, he said, unafraid for tomorrow.
Next season will come, he said, and he'll stand where he's supposed to stand. He'll track a pitch and then another. He'll get back to being a hitter, a ballplayer, and one of the best in the game. That, he believes.
"What are you, 25?" Hank Aaron asked him Saturday.
"Twenty-four," Stanton said.
"Twenty-four!" Aaron exclaimed, eyeing the length of Stanton's 6-foot-6 frame and the breadth of his shoulders.
When he was just a boy, Stanton's father, Mike, would summon Giancarlo to the living room to watch reruns of the old "Home Run Derby" show, filmed in black and white at old Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. Mike would point at Aaron. Look at that guy, he'd say. Look at the power in those wrists. That's a ballplayer.
Come Saturday evening, six weeks after he was hit in the face by a fastball and carried from a field in Milwaukee, some 15 years since he'd first heard of the man who broke Babe Ruth's home run record, Stanton sat beside the man himself. Stanton was the National League's Hank Aaron Award winner (given to the league's best hitter), accepted the trophy with grace, then sat back and listened to Aaron tell stories of his own youth.
"Who woulda thought," Stanton said of his father, "his son would be sitting in the same room as Henry Aaron."
Stanton batted .288, hit 37 home runs and drove in 105 runs for the Miami Marlins in 145 games, and in that 145th game, on Sept. 11, his season ended. He lay in the dirt and counted teeth with his tongue, and wondered where all the blood was coming from, and tried to stay awake. His father was in Milwaukee that night and stood by as the ballpark went quiet and his boy was carted away. Stanton hadn't seen the pitch until it was too late. The impact was flush.
"That series," he said, "I could not pick the ball up very well."
Stanton hadn't felt quite right going into that game. He was fighting the onset of a slump, straining to see the ball, and his mind told him to open up a little, maybe get both eyes on the pitch. So his hips opened too, and his shoulders, and when the fastball arrived he was nearly square to the ball and trapped.
"There's no reaction time," he said.
The damage to Stanton's face, both internal and external, was substantial. But his eye and the bone around it were unharmed. In the early weeks, he could not fly, he could not sleep lying down, he could not look down for the dizziness that would bring, or tie his shoes for the same reason. There were tests upon tests, and long hours in a dentist's chair, with more to come. He's begun yoga and soon will return to his normal offseason routine. That's the plan.
Before he would attend the news conference and accept the award that bears Aaron's name, Stanton, looking fit and healthy in a blue suit, waited in a room across the hall. He seemed to carry none of the doubts that might come with such a ferocious beaning, but only the perspective even a young man might gain from it. There are no guarantees, even for the strongest among them.
"I realized that in general," he said. "But you never really realize it until it's right there.
"If anything, it's made me more aware of my original beliefs in life and the game. I've got more of a pure emphasis on it now. You understand how things can happen."
He still feels an occasional jab of pain when he chews food, but otherwise he can feel himself healing. He believes he'll wear a face guard when he bats, as Atlanta's Jason Heyward does, and is considering several options. He has not yet swung a bat. Soon, that will come too, and then he'll begin the slow ride toward spring training, back toward the career that is so promising. Two seasons from free agency, he hopes for more from his ballclub in the way of personnel. There are some big pitchers out there this winter. But mostly he's got himself to tend to, to get his body and mind back.
"I feel great," he said. "It's a lot better than I thought it was going to be."
He's asked a lot if he'll have any hesitation, any doubts. He shook his head.
"No, no, no," he said, a smile spreading across his face. "There's no exceptions in that. If there is any doubt, you get that taken care of in spring training. I'll play every day if I have to."
Then the smile was gone.
"No," he said, "I don't have any time for that."