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BILL DWYRE

Jiovanni Mier makes comeback after close call

The 18-year-old former Bonita star recovered from a football injury during his senior year and was drafted 21st overall by the Houston Astros.

August 02, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Greeneville, Tenn., of the Appalachian League is a far cry from being strapped to a stretcher and carried off a high school field in La Verne, as fans and friends in a hushed stadium murmur silent prayers that you aren't paralyzed.

That's the trip that 18-year-old Jiovanni Mier has made. His is a story of the ultimate happy ending, after the ultimate close call.

Mier is now the starting shortstop for Greeneville, the Houston Astros' rookie-level team. A few days ago, Mier was three for three, with three runs batted in. That lifted his batting average to .311 in 27 games, with two home runs and 18 RBIs.

He is not just another kid trying to make it.

Bobby Heck, the Astros' director of scouting, says that when Mier was selected with the team's first pick in the June major league draft, the 21st pick overall, he was surprised Mier was still available.

"We thought he was the best baseball player in the draft," Heck says.

The Astros put their money where their mouth was. Mier's signing bonus was $1.358 million -- about the same number that was the centerpiece the night of Sept. 17, 2007, when Mier was carried off and a festive evening turned scary.

Bonita High's football field, Glenn Davis Stadium, was named for the school's greatest athletic hero, Army's Mr. Outside. To this day, Davis' Heisman Trophy sits in the school's trophy case. Several years before he died in 2005, he quietly showed up one day and donated it to the school.

On this balmy September night, Bonita was playing a game on an upgraded surface, one that cost about $1.3 million and was being dedicated that night. It was an occasion to, again, celebrate Davis.

The mayor was there. So were lots of local dignitaries and people who had been influential in Bonita's athletic programs for many years. Some had been around long enough to talk about Davis from personal memory. There were smiles, handshakes and pats on the back all around.

That is until Mier, a star wide receiver and defensive back, went up to defend a pass, cracked helmets with his opponent, and stayed down, flat on his back. That scene is football's worst nightmare, no matter what level of competition.

While medical personnel worked on Mier, some fans in the stands held hands. So did a couple of Bonita coaches along the sidelines.

In the crowd was Leticia Mier, Jiovanni's mother, who remembered how early it had become clear that the youngest of her three boys was an exceptional athlete.

"When he was in T-ball," she says, "he was not allowed to play with the boys his age, because he hit the ball too hard. They made him go to a team of boys two years older."

His high school football coach, Eric Podley, and his baseball coach, John Knott, used to joke with each other about how Mier, despite focusing more on baseball and even soccer, would show up for football in August and get up to speed immediately.

"After about two days, I'd ask Eric how he was doing," Knott says. "He'd say, 'Oh, he's our best player already.' "

Mier had taken a hard hit in the back earlier in the game, and a Bonita trainer had suggested he sit out the rest of this one. He ignored that but regretted that decision later.

"I just remember hitting wrong," Mier says.

He also remembers his thought as he felt the pain.

"Oh, baseball," he says. "It hurt so bad, and that was the thing going through my mind."

The rest of the evening was a nightmare.

"I remember my mom crying," he says. "I remember being strapped down. It was the worst feeling ever. Just terrible. After about three hours at the hospital, I asked them if they could loosen it up a bit. I remember being able to move my elbow to my head and that was great."

The aftermath has been anything but a nightmare.

What was originally thought to be a cracked vertebra turned out to be a serious upper-neck sprain, as well as extensive soft-tissue damage. But he soon was moving, working on his parents, Leticia and Fausto, to let him go back. Three weeks later, he was on the football field. And at the end of the season, he was an all-league selection on offense and defense.

But baseball was the obvious future. He had signed a letter of intent to play at USC. That alone should have been more than enough to keep him away from football. It almost was.

The decision was made to skip his senior season of football last fall at Bonita. It was a logical, sound decision. Mier understood, even agreed.

Then he went to Bonita's first game and watched from the stands.

"He called and said, 'Mom, I can't do this. You've got to let me play,' " Leticia Mier says. "But on the way home from the game, he heard that one of his baseball teammates had injured a knee and might not play again. That stopped him, and he decided he would stick with the decision not to play football."

These high school football neck injury stories almost never have a happy ending. Jiovanni Mier's does.

He is a high-paid prospect, 6 feet 2 and 175 pounds, just beginning a climb that could bring him to the big leagues. He has a supportive family; one of his older brothers, Jessie, playing in the Dodgers' minor league system, and people in the Astros' organization already comparing him to former prospects named Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter.

Mier knows he is blessed. He also knows that the only time he wants to be carried off an athletic field again is on the shoulders of his teammates.

Maybe at the end of a World Series.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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