If Jordan Schafer could turn back time, he would return to a rainy night in April. The Braves had just knocked off the Nationals, 6-5, thanks in part to Schafer, who scored the winning run after reaching on his second hit of the game. He was jubilant, celebrating after he slid across home plate to end the Braves' rain-delayed home opener at 1:25 a.m. ET. It was just the latest in a string of great moments for Schafer, who won the starting center fielder's job in Spring Training by hitting .324 and hit a home run in his first big league at-bat on April 5 against the defending World Series champion Phillies. He had five hits in his first four games (including his second home run in only his 11th at-bat).
He was just 22 years old, and his rookie year was off to a tremendous start. More than 20 family members and friends attended the season-opener in Philadelphia, and he said he had to stifle a smile as he rounded the bases after hitting his first home run. It appeared Schafer's suspension-marred 2008 was way back in the rearview mirror. Something went wrong on that night of April 10, though. At first, Schafer didn't think much about the pain in his left wrist. He felt a pop when he swung at the first pitch of his 10th-inning at-bat, but then he singled on another pitch. He felt more discomfort on that swing and he thought something didn't feel right as he moved around the bases and scored the winning run. Caught up in the celebration, he kept his mouth shut, a move he now second-guesses. "I wish I had said something that night," said Schafer, only the fifth player in franchise history to hit a home run in his first at-bat. "I just didn't want to say anything. "I didn't want to tell them I was hurting. You work for something your entire life, and when you get to the top, you're hurt four games into your Major League career. You do anything to play. You do what you have to do to play." Schafer, the first Braves player to make his big league debut on Opening Day since 1981 (left fielder Rufino Linares), said he reported the pain to the Braves the next day, but thought he could play through it. He blocked it out, and at first, the strategy worked. The night after the injury, he had three more hits, even though his wrist hurt so much he could barely follow through on his swing. He thought it was just a nagging injury and that it would heal, so he kept playing and pushing and performing well enough to make the Braves and their fans believe their center fielder of the future was in Atlanta to stay. "He expressed to me that it hurt him," said Dave Schafer, Jordan's father. "He said, 'Dad, I've lived my whole life with this dream. If I have to play with one arm, I'm going to play.'" General manager Frank Wren said he was aware of the injury, but the consensus was that Schafer could play through it. "We just thought it was 'one of those things,'" Wren said. Soon, the hits stopped coming -- and the strikeouts began to pile up. Schafer finished April with a .273 average and a .415 on-base percentage. In May, he hit .158, and his OBP plummeted to .313. He struck out 63 times in 167 at-bats. On June 2, Schafer was demoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. Schafer doesn't know whether or not he caused more damage to his wrist by continuing to play with the injury. He saw action in only nine games for Gwinnett before doctors placed a cast on his hand and wrist for a month. On Aug. 31, hand specialist Dr. Gary Lourie removed a bone spur and stabilized two bones on the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint in Schafer's left hand. The Braves' third-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft remained in an immobilizing cast that extended from his fingertips to past his elbow for six weeks after the surgery.
"I can't do anything," Schafer said in late September. "It's a little tough tying my shoes. I can't cook. It's terrible. I do most everything left-handed. My right hand is not useful."
Schafer tried to stay busy the final month of the season by hunting for a permanent Atlanta home. He was planning to move from his Midtown condo to a home in suburban Cumming.
He also kept reassuring himself that he handled the injury correctly, and he was looking forward to having the huge cast replaced by a smaller one that would allow him to extend his elbow. He said that would permit him to work out, run, start rehab and 'start doing little stuff to get my strength back.'
"There's always that fear that you don't know what's going to happen. That's frustrating," Schafer said. "I try not to second-guess things. What if I had surgery earlier in the year? At the same time, I wouldn't have been able to play anymore this year. It's a Catch-22. It's done with now. I'm confident, and with my therapist here to get me through this, I'll come back. I'm young enough and should recover quickly. Whatever they tell me to do, I'm going to do. It'll take care of itself."
If everything goes well with rehab, Schafer hopes to begin swinging a bat in late November or early December and begin preparing for spring training.
"At the end of every year, Jordan always takes six weeks off before he starts training for the next year," Dave Schafer said. "By the end of that time every year, he gets hungry. He gets ready to start training. This has been really tough on him. He hasn't been to the park. He's not around his teammates. He's antsy to get going. He can't wait to get started. He said he's going to work harder than before. He can't wait to get going."
Schafer's frustration comes through at times. So many bad things -- from his wrist injury to the strikeouts to the demotion to the surgery -- have happened since April. He sometimes can't keep his frustration to himself.
"I feel like it's been a wasted year," Schafer said.
To make matters even worse, one day after Schafer was sent to Gwinnett, the Braves acquired center fielder Nate McLouth from the Pirates.
McLouth is under contract through at least 2011, raising questions about Schafer's future with the club. Schafer said earlier this year he wouldn't mind moving to a corner outfield position, if it would help the team.
"Like I told Jordan after the McLouth deal, we value him and we like him," Wren said. "We look forward to him contributing in the big leagues and we'll have a place for him. He's a talented young player. We're not going to prejudge his condition. We'll make a determination when the time's right. We love the speed he provides. We love the defense he provides. We look forward to him doing that for us."
Schafer also knows he'll have to quiet his critics, who quickly began to question his ability as his average dropped and his strikeouts began to pile up. Some folks think the Braves rushed Schafer, who turned 23 in September, to the Majors, especially since he missed 50 games in 2008 while serving a suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.
Schafer also has to come back from a serious injury and surgery for the first time. Will the injury affect his swing? Will it affect his confidence?
Will he be ready to demonstrate the natural talent that earned him recognition as one of the Braves' top prospects in 2008?
"It's been a hard time for him," Dave Schafer said. "He's never had a major injury in his life, nothing more than a tweaked hamstring or something like that. Even as a little boy. He's not comfortable with [not being able to play]. But I was at the surgery, and I talked to Dr. Lourie, and he said there is a 95-percent chance there will be no lingering injury from this. I firmly believe Jordan will come back healthy and be more ready than ever."
Schafer has been trying to make the best of his situation. He sometimes finds it hard to believe the differences between the highs of his Spring Training success and his opening-night homer to the lows of his injury and being sent to Gwinnett in June, and then having surgery in August.
"You know, things happen. You don't have to like that they happen, but they happen," Schafer said. "I was a totally different player after the injury. It's hard enough to be a rookie in the Major Leagues, and it's even tougher to compete when you're injured.
"Could I have done things differently? Yes, but that's behind me now. I'm 100 percent confident that I'll be 100-percent fine. I'll be ready for next year."
|"It's hard enough to be a rookie in the Major Leagues, and it's even tougher to compete when you're injured."|
|-- Jordan Schafer|
Andy Johnston is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.