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Catcher who won suit vs. Jose Offerman speaks out

Catcher John Nathans tries to prevent Jose Offerman from hitting Matt Beech with a bat.

Christian abraham/connecticut post/AP/File

Catcher John Nathans tries to prevent Jose Offerman from hitting Matt Beech with a bat.

When former Bridgeport Bluefish catcher John Nathans testified in federal court about feeling the barrel of Jose Offerman’s bat hitting his skull and ending his baseball career seven years ago, he stared directly at the eyes of the former Red Sox All-Star second baseman.

“I looked at him from the stand and he never looked up,” said Nathans, who also played two seasons for the Red Sox’ Double A Portland affiliate. “He wouldn’t even look up and give me some eye contact.”

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Last week, a Connecticut jury awarded Nathans $940,000 in damages stemming from the 2007 attack.

“We’re very happy with it,” said Nathans. “The jury recognized that I suffered life-altering permanent injuries. That’s money that’s going to go to my future treatment.”

On Aug. 14, 2007, Nathans was attempting to stop the bat-wielding Offerman, who charged the mound after being hit by a pitch in a game between the Bluefish and the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League.

Nathans says he was struck in the back right side of his head, and that the blow caused permanent vestibular (nerve) damage to his ear, as well as headaches, nausea, and dizziness associated with postconcussion syndrome. No day goes by without symptoms, he says.

“I do therapy two days a week, and there’s no foreseeable end to that seven years out,” he said.

‘I didn’t get to leave the game on my own terms. He took a bat to my head and ended my career.’

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Bridgeport pitcher Matt Beech suffered a broken middle finger on his non-pitching hand but escaped further injury when Nathan came to his rescue. The catcher stayed in the game but later collapsed in the dugout and left the park on a stretcher, taken to a waiting ambulance. His professional baseball career was over at age 28.

“I didn’t get to leave the game on my own terms,” Nathans told the jury in US District Court in Bridgeport. “He took a bat to my head and ended my career.”

Former minor league catcher John Nathans, who is now a lawyer, with his wife, Kate Lawrence, a state prosecutor in Maine.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Former minor league catcher John Nathans, who is now a lawyer, with his wife, Kate Lawrence, a state prosecutor in Maine.

Nathans was seeking $4.8 million in a suit filed in 2009 against Offerman and the Ducks.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said in his first sit-down interview since the decision. “This was a blue-collar jury that sat there for 2½ weeks, $940,000 is not a small amount of money.”

Offerman, 45, who also was an All-Star for the Dodgers and played for a total of seven major league teams in a 15-year career, denied swinging the bat or striking anyone.

On that fateful day, he had hit a home run on the first pitch of the game. Then in the second inning, he was hit in the calf with a cut fastball — unintentionally, according to Beech — and charged the mound, allegedly swinging the bat several times.

“I lost it for about 10 seconds,” Offerman told the Connecticut Post.

On the witness stand, Offerman admitted charging the mound with his bat raised in anger but said he had a last-second change of heart.

“I never swung the bat,” he testified. “I never hit him.”

Nathans, now a lawyer in Portland, Maine, said he was “dumbfounded” by Offerman’s testimony.

“He was just in a state of denial, and it was clear to everyone, including the jury,” says Nathans. “He never once acknowledged swinging the bat. Nobody believes that.”

There is no video of the incident. The jury was shown a series of photos and also heard the Ducks play-by-play announcer say that Offerman did indeed swing, though he missed. But a Bridgeport police officer testified that he saw both Beech and Nathans get struck by Offerman’s bat.

Beech testified in a video deposition that he heard the bat hit Nathans.

“Offerman was swinging his bat — a helicopter swing,” Beech said. “It made a pretty loud ‘whack’ when it hit his head.”

Nathans had neither a helmet nor a catcher’s mask on when he reached the mound.

Offerman was immediately arrested and charged with two counts of felony assault. A Bridgeport Superior Court judge granted Offerman “accelerated rehabilitation” — i.e. two years probation — and ordered him to receive anger management treatment. The league also suspended him.

But Offerman’s troubles were not over. In 2010, Offerman threw a punch at an umpire while managing the Licey Tigers in the Dominican Winter League. The league suspended Offerman for life, but rescinded the ban in 2012 after he received psychological treatment. He is currently managing Licey again, according to his lawyer, Frank Riccio II.

A ‘curious’ decision

According to Nathans, Offerman never has apologized to him, and has dodged a deposition for years, a charge Offerman has denied.

Nathans went on to attend the University of Maine School of Law, and in 2012 he passed the bar in both Maine and Massachusetts. He also ran marathons, which he knew the defense team would try to use against him.

“Running a marathon is not very complicated,” said Nathans. “It doesn’t require me to turn my head, which would make me dizzy.

“I was a professional athlete and just because I had one thing taken away from me I wasn’t going to stop.”

Nathans says the Ducks, who were not found culpable, launched “an unbelievable character assassination of epic proportions” to discredit him. They even blamed Nathans for heading to the mound, calling it “not professional,” according to court transcripts.

“I don’t regret it,” said Nathans.

Bluefish manager Tommy John, the former major league pitcher who has the famous arm surgery named after him, testified that Nathans did the right thing. Otherwise, said John, “the next day, he would have been finding a new job.”

The jury deliberated for five hours and found Offerman liable of assault but not battery. Offerman’s lawyer, Riccio, called the decision “curious.”

Offerman has denied all media requests to comment, according to Riccio.

“He was happy with the jury’s finding that he didn’t commit a battery but he, too, was confused with the verdict as I was,” said Riccio. “If he was found not liable for battery, how could he be liable for damages as a result of physical injury?

“And that’s the million-dollar question, no pun intended.”

According to Riccio, Offerman’s testimony that he did not swing at Nathans was echoed by others.

“Every witness — all but one — said they didn’t see the bat hit anybody,” said Riccio. “There was a melee on the field.”

Nathans disputed those comments.

“They were just telling lies,” he said. “The jury came back with real damages — that’s seven people saying we believe John is hurt, and that feels great. He didn’t have to admit anything; the jury did that for him.’’

Big league dreams

Nathans said testifying was painful.

“I broke down on the stand talking about the incident itself, putting myself back in the situation and the realization that was the end of my career,” he said.

When the attack occurred, he was trying to get back into pro baseball in what is considered a “last chance league.”

The dream he had since age 5 — to play in the major leagues — was still alive, although barely. He was batting .200 and not playing regularly.

Nathans originally was signed by the Red Sox in an open workout in 2001. A light-hitting, strong defensive catcher, he played with the Double A Portland Sea Dogs in 2003-04 before being released.

He did get a taste of The Show, in spring training. The Red Sox called him up as a backup, and manager Grady Little once sent him in to pinch run for Manny Ramirez in a Grapefruit League game. Pedro Martinez gave him a signed baseball after Nathans caught a bullpen session for him. He also caught a young lefthander named Jon Lester.

But Nathans made only a small fraction of the estimated $32 million that Offerman made in his career. His top salary was approximately $1,500 a month.

With Offerman residing in the Dominican Republic, Nathans was asked if he’ll ever see a dime from him.

“Oh, we’ll see a dime,” he said. “There are ways to reach out and touch people’s assets.”

But Nathans refuses to let the incident define him. He married Kate Lawrence, a Maine state prosecutor and his biggest fan.

“He’s never been a woe-is-me guy,” said Lawrence. “He doesn’t need pep talks, he gives them.”

With his piercing blue eyes suddenly filling with tears but his voice strong, Nathans sounds as if he is channeling Lou Gehrig.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I understand that. I’m lucky I didn’t get killed that night. I’m lucky I had another option of going to law school. I’m lucky I had people that believed in me and gave me support and jobs, a great support system in my wife, family, and great friends.”

His younger brother, Tucker Nathans, is currently playing second base in Frederick, Md., for the Baltimore Orioles’ High Single A team. They talk baseball most every night.

“It’s great,” said John Nathans, flashing a smile. “I think he’s going to make it to the big leagues. I live vicariously through him.”

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.
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