"I'm a catcher. It's what I do. I catch."
The Pirates' starting catcher spoke those words back in Bradenton, when I asked for maybe the billionth time about his concern over concussions. And the response was no different than the billion times before.
Until this time.
In an extraordinary, emotional conversation at his PNC Park stall Sunday morning, Francisco Cervelli told me he's decided he'll no longer catch. He isn't sure what position he'll play -- he's been taking grounders and fly balls for a few days now -- and he made powerfully clear that the team's management didn't impose or even significantly influence the decision, but he sounded drop-dead serious.
"That's enough," Cervelli said. "This time is different. I can't live like this."
He declined to divulge details of the symptoms of his latest concussion, the sixth on record since he arrived in the majors. He also had several others at different levels of the game, including home plate collisions when those were allowed and being hit in the head by pitches three times.
Now, at age 33, he sounds determined to resume his career with characteristic fire but in full health. He said he's been feeling "great" for a good while now, and all that's keeping him from a return is another medical appointment next week for a possible final clearance. After that, he expects to go to Class AAA Indianapolis and get deployed however the Pirates choose.
"I'm ready to do anything," he said before adding with a smile. "Wherever I am in the field, I'm still catching the ball, right?"
Cervelli emphasized that the decision wasn't forced upon him by the Pirates in any way and praised all involved with his treatment, including the oversight of Neal Huntington. The day after the May 25 foul tip to the mask that's had Cervelli out ever since, Huntington said, “We care about this man. We care about this person and want him to have a great post-playing career. ... You have to respect the player’s wishes. Francisco has been adamant that he wants to continue to catch. I think he would be quite unhappy if we told him he was never going to catch for us again.” But that stance gradually changed over Cervelli's absence, among the longest of his career, and it's clearly come full circle.
When I asked if the team instructed him to stop catching, Cervelli pointedly replied, "No."
Huntington, speaking with reporters at PNC Park shortly before the Sunday afternoon game against the Brewers, said the Pirates "aren't ready to make a public statement" on Cervelli's status, adding, "Anytime it's a medical issue, it's always the player's decision. Our job is to provide them with the best possible information. Our discussions with Cervy to date have been about playing other positions, and we want to honor and respect that. He's come so far to be major-league ready in a short period of time. We just want to do right by him."
Cervelli is in the final year of a contract that pays $11.5 million, making him the Pirates' highest-paid player, and he can become a free agent this winter. In his absence, Elias Diaz has started and, following a rough start, is slashing .274/.327/.352. Backup Jacob Stallings, who's out of options and could be lost through waivers if the team tries to return him to Indianapolis, is at .327/.389/.408.
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