No one really knew how bad Jason Van Kooten was hurt last season, and Van Kooten wasn't telling.
He could be seen day after day in the clubhouse with an ice pack on his lower back after another afternoon of non-action on the diamond.
Finally, after an extended trip to see the Colorado Rockies' specialists in Denver, the cause of Van Kooten's back trauma was found, and the healing process was able to start. This season, Van Kooten returned to the Nuts healthy and has responded as a key player in a utility role, logging starts at second, third and shortstop.
Of all the players who have come through Modesto since the Rockies took over in 2005, Van Kooten is the first who grew up a Rockies fan. Van Kooten's family hails from Pella, Iowa, and moved to Denver when he was young.
He was a standout shortstop at Regis Jesuit High in Aurora, where one assistant coach was former major-league and Modesto A's shortstop Walt Weiss. Van Kooten hit .409 as a senior and placed a perfect suicide bunt to plate the winning run in a state playoff game against Columbine.
The Rockies took Van Kooten in the 46th round of the 2003 draft. He attended Seward County (Kan.) Community College for a year, then signed with the Rockies before the 2004 draft.
Brian VanderBeek: What did it mean to you, as a Denver resident, to get drafted by the Rockies?
Jason Van Kooten: That was special. Just being drafted was an honor, even in the 46th round. They told me I was going to be a draft-and-follow, and I didn't even think about it again until after the junior college world series was over and the Rockies started calling me. Walt Weiss was a good friend, since he coached me in high school, so I talked to him about it. It was a good situation for me.
BVB: Were you a Walt Weiss fan before high school?
JVK: Yeah. When I was real young, there were no Rockies. I was 10 when they came to Denver. I watched the Cubs and the Braves on TV, and I watched him play with the A's. He came to Coors and we played the same position, so he was the guy I watched every day. I was a big baseball fan and watched a lot of Cubs games during the day. When my dad got home from work, I had to do chores, so I couldn't watch baseball at night. We had a couple acres in a subdivision that was zoned for horses, so I had to take care of them.
BVB: I knew you couldn't play last year because of your back, but I only found out recently how serious that injury was.
JVK: I tried to keep a lot of that quiet last year because I didn't want to drag the team down. But it was pretty severe. Nothing was helping, and on some days I couldn't get out of bed or put clothes on. Finally, when I saw a specialist in Denver, it took about a month of getting shots in my back to figure out what it was. They found fractures in my lower vertebrae. I had epidurals, I had novocaine and cortisone shots. The procedures were wild. They'd knock me out because they had to stick needles in my spine, then they'd wake me up 10 minutes later to check my range of motion. I could only do this three times in any day because of the anesthesia, and this went on for a few weeks. It took them that long to find the spot so they could take the pressure off my spine.
BVB: But they did find the spot.
JVK: Thank God. I was beginning to think I was never going to play again, and I was beginning to think about what the rest of my life was going to be like not being able to walk. I felt like an 80-year-old farmer.
BVB: Was there any single trauma that caused your back injury?
JVK: I remember toward the end of spring training in 2007 having a little bit of pain. I thought it was from sleeping on a bad bed. It just kept getting worse every day. Before the 10th game of the season, I had to tell Jerry (Weinstein) that I couldn't even walk without pain. I tried to rehab here for a month, then they sent me to Denver.
BVB: I have to admit the first thing I thought about was your back when you got flipped at second base right before the fight against Stockton.
JVK: I wasn't worried about my back, but I'm very happy that our infield is very hard, so our cleats don't stick into it. Had my cleat stuck in the ground, I may have shattered a knee or broken my shin on that play because he came in pretty hard.
BVB: Once you have a back injury, it's impossible to keep it out of your mind.
JVK: It's out. I don't worry about it anymore. Last year, when I came back, I was worried about hurting it on a swing or throw awkwardly. It's not a factor anymore.
BVB: Do you have a favorite position in the field? Is it third, short, second or somewhere else?
JVK: I was a shortstop coming here last year, then we got Chris Nelson and I became a second baseman. I was sharing time with E.Y. (Eric Young Jr.), but he's more of a true second baseman, so they asked me to try third base. This year, Dan (Mayora) moved from second to short after Hector (Gomez) got hurt, so I'm back at second. It's nicer this year because I can play second base every day and get better at playing one position instead of winging it at other spots.
BVB: The Nuts have had so many injuries, starting with Gomez on opening day, but the silver lining is that it's opened a chance for you to play every day.
JVK: I don't look at it that way. I feel really bad for Hector and what he's had to go through because I went through a full season with an injury last year. I hope he recovers and gets strong enough to do what he does best. I'll just take care of myself.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.