It had been over a month since I last pitched.
On June 23, I enjoyed pitching against Jersey City. Then, on June 25, I had my first visit with an orthopedist who did as I feared he would… he shut me down.
On June 25, my baseball season ended. On June 25, my softball seasons ended. And, on June 25, my hopes for running the 2019 New York City Marathon also ended.
The orthopedist looked at my swollen right ankle, the MRI that showed tears in the Achilles tendon, and his own X-Rays. He said, “This isn’t good, Paul.” The word “surgery” came up, but he also said, “I’m not ready to go there yet.” I think the thing that made him shut me down totally was when I could perform a simple exercise in his office – standing on just my right foot and going to “tippy toes.” When I couldn’t do that, it cinched the deal.
I was given a night brace, an anti-inflammatory prescription, and little hope.
I left the office with the brace, a discouraged countenance, and a follow-up appointment.
But all of that is old news.
In the weeks since, I did the only exercises I was permitted. I rode my stationary bike and lifted dumbbells. These didn’t quite satisfy my need to be active, but it was all I was permitted to do.
Since it was summer, we ventured off to the beach for the July 4th holiday. While at the shore, I did begin throwing once again, just by having catches with my sons and nephew. We always do this at the beach. For some people, the beach is waves, water, sand, and sun. For me, the best part of the beach is a leather glove, a baseball, and one (or all) of my sons. Over the course of the week, we probably threw four or five times. It was great. I love having catches, especially with my kids, but as great as it was, it wasn’t the same as playing ball.
It was during one of the catches that my oldest son, Ryan, taught me how to throw the knuckleball. Ryan has been throwing that pitch since he was much younger. Now 25 years-old, Ryan has over a decade of experience with it. Ryan throws the hardest knuckleball I’ve even seen. He is actually a master at making the ball come out of his hand without any spin. As we discussed the pitch, and he showed me his grip and motion, I finally figured it out. (Well, as best as I can do with throwing any trick pitch.) As we tossed the ball around, I was able to throw the Ryan Knuckler about 25% of the time. Still, that’s a lot more than never! I determined that if I could make it back into a game, I’d try it out.
At that point, I was thinking that 2020 would be the likely time that I’d pitch again…
As the weeks without softball and baseball went on, I realized a few things…
First, due to a collection of family responsibilities, my Sundays became full with obligations other than sport. I’ve been playing Sunday softball for decades. How is it that I was always able to play, but the moment I couldn’t, I lost that “free” time? I can’t explain it. The injury, in this case, was actually a blessing because I wouldn’t have been able to juggle it all while playing ball.
Secondly, I missed playing a ton and I’d be reminded of that at odd times. When watching the Yankees, for example, there would be certain things that would happen, like observing the players just throwing the ball around the infield, that created a sadness I felt immensely. I missed playing – deeply in my gut. There is something special about the camaraderie that occurs on a ball field among teammates and friends.
With all of this I also realized that as an older guy who doesn’t know how many seasons he has left, missing any time stung a little bit more. I’m on borrowed time as a ballplayer, and I gave a year of that borrowed time away.
Thirteen days after visiting the orthopedist, I was back again for a follow-up. It seems the rest was doing me some good. He has me in a night boot for an hour each evening. Whatever it does, the results seemed to be positive.
The orthopedist told me to continue the manipulation and rehab work with my chiropractor. He then dropped two surprises on me. First, he said that he would still not rule out surgery, but he had a few more things to try before he’d be willing to go to the last possible option – opening me up. Secondly, as part of the process of seeing how my body responds to various treatments, he told be to begin running again, very slowly… “One minute slow jog, one minute walk… repeat for ten minutes. If you can do it,” he said, “You can increase by five minutes each time you run.”
That was music to my ears!
About a week later, I stopped by the ball field to root on my local softball team. It’s not much fun to watch a game and not play in it, but I wanted to be around the guys and the game. The team was short a player. I knew I couldn’t play shortstop, but I went behind the plate to act as the (stationary) catcher until another player arrived. Since I was playing, I also had to bat. I actually went one for two with a strong enough hit that allowed me to jog, very slowly, to first base before being lifted for a pinch runner.
I wasn’t fully back, but I was, at least in a sense.
One quick note about running and walking, one minute on and one minute off. The jogging minutes go by very quickly, while the walking ones seem to take forever.
A week or so later, there was another visit to the orthopedist where he again was pleased with my progress. He had developed some orthotics for me that seemed to be taking the pressure off my heal leading to less pain. Each time I visited the office, he’d tinker with the ones he made. Whatever he was doing, it seemed to be working.
I then explained my desire to pitch again. “It’s baseball, not softball,” I explained. “I don’t hit. I won’t run the bases. I’ll just pitch.” I then added, “My son Ethan is the catcher.”
The doctor looked at me and smiled. “When is this game?” he asked.
“A week from Sunday,” I responded.
“Come back in next Friday. No promises. But….” and he smiled, “I’ll tape you up like in the old locker room.”
I was going to be pitching again!
A few days later, my softball team was once again short players. I decided to test fate… I offered to man my old position – shortstop.
We lost the game, I had little to no mobility, but I managed to make plays on everything hit to me (or very near me) and I limped my way to another base hit.
The next day was my taping session with the doctor. When he came in the room I said, “You’re going to be mad at me. I played softball last night.”
“Good for you!,” he said.
He then taped me so I’d be able to pitch.
We also talked next steps. He said that surgery was still very possible, probably a 65% likelihood.
I asked about the rehab. “It’s six months, right?”
“No. In six months, you’ll run you next marathon,” he replied.
I really like this doctor!
Because of the injury, I had to abandon my routine from earlier in the spring of throwing every other day. I did get some throws in over the summer weeks, often with Ethan, sometimes with friends, but I definitely wasn’t as strong going into the game.
Still, I was back on the mound and pitching again.
And, you know what? I did pretty well.
Pretty darn well.
We had a new catcher, so Ethan played most of the game at second base. The catcher called a great game. He had me changing speeds and keeping the batters off balance.
I hurled 5 1/3 innings. I allowed eight runs, but I left the game with us trailing by just one run. All things considered, that wasn’t too bad. I struck out five.
In one at bat, Ethan hit the tar out of the ball lining a hard single to right and driving in a run.
We lost, but it was a great game.
Afterwards, Coach Yates stated that our season was probably over. The league’s final game, the next week, wasn’t scheduled and it probably wouldn’t occur.
During the week following my outing on the mound, my softball team played in a do-or-die playoff game. I went to the game and offered to play if they needed me, but we had plenty of players so I just served as the score keeper and third base coach.
The team battled and lost in the last inning against the second best team in the league.
I didn’t contribute, but it was fun being with the guys. Their season was now also over. The sadness of this struck me deep inside. I wait all winter to play ball and because of this injury, I lost most of a season.
Next spring is a lifetime away.
Soon after, the text message came… “Guys, we have one more baseball game. Who’s in on Sunday?”
I immediately replied, “I’m in. Ethan too!”
We had one more game to play! Unfortunately it would be against the very best team in the league.
Some people ask me, “How can you pitch for a baseball team, but not play softball?” I don’t have a great answer except to say that the impact of pitching is different on my Achilles than it is when I try to play infield or outfield in the two softball leagues. I also don’t have to hit when I pitch. I get DH’d. All I have to do is stand on the mound and throw. It hurts, especially after the game, but I can do it.
I’ll also say this, anyone who knows me knows that I would play ball, any kind of ball, every single day if I could. Missing any game frustrates and depresses me more than I could ever explain.
All season long, before I got hurt, whenever the team asked if I could pitch, I’d reply, “Yes! I can give you nine innings.”
Of course, I never pitched that much…
And then came, Sunday, August 4 – the definite, definitive, and absolute last game of the baseball season.
As I prepared at home, I put on a brace the orthopedist gave me. (He was on vacation and couldn’t tape me up.) I pulled the brace super tight so that my ankle could barely move. And off we went, Ethan and I, to play ball…
As we arrived, Coach asked, “Do you have nine innings in you?” I replied, “Of course.”
I was soon toeing the rubber and pitching.
Inning after inning was completed. The players behind me were playing great defense. I was somehow (for the most part) not giving up hard hit balls.
Sure, the opponent scored a few runs…but we battled back each time.
(I don’t have the scorecard with me, so this is all from memory, but…)
After three innings, we were down 3-0.
I believe we were down only 4-3 after 5 innings.
I went out for the sixth figuring that would be my last inning. I allowed no runs.
I think I gave up three runs in the seventh, but managed to get out of it. Bloops, bleeders, and such did me in.
They asked, “You got another one in you?”
I pitched the eighth.
We tied the game at 7-7 in the bottom of the eighth! This collection of men, who never played together before this season, just kept battling. A single here, a double there. Stolen bases, walks, clutch hits. It was amazing.
I went out for the ninth inning. I had nothing left, except determination. Somehow I was able to get three outs. I pitched a complete game!
I threw nine innings of slow pitches. Slow, slower, and slowest. Mixed in was the very occasional “fastball.” Somehow my pitches moved a little. The occasional knuckler worked on occasion (well, at least once). The batters were off balance. I struck out a few (but I don’t remember how many).
In my entire life, before that game, I had never pitched nine innings. When I was a kid, our games weren’t even that long. We played seven inning games.
But I did it. I went nine. That’s something! Right?
Still, there was some bad news. In the ninth, they scored three more runs off me and we went into our last at bat down 10-7.
It was the bottom of the 9th. We were now batting…
There was a single. And a walk. Then Coach Yates hit a booming double that scored two. It was 10-9.
But that’s where it stayed.
We lost, by one, but oh, what a game!
I’m a 51 year-old guy. I was never much of a baseball player. As a kid, on occasion in Little League, they’d let me pitch. I don’t recall ever doing all that well.
In my high school career, I never made it to varsity. As a Junior, I pitched JV, mostly against freshmen. It was the only time anyone let me near the pitcher’s mound in all my high school seasons. My success was very limited.
I never played in college. Or after.
When I did pitch, I had one skill, I could throw strikes. The players on the other teams had a better skill – they could mash the strikes I threw.
But I had a dream. I still do. I wanted to be a Yankee. I wanted to play in the Big Leagues.
A long time ago I realized that I’d never be a Major Leaguer. I knew that my dream would never come true. You need talent to get there. I have none.
When I was 16 years old, now 35 years ago, I hung up my cleats figuring I’d never play baseball again.
I was wrong.
Somehow a bunch of men, each one nicer than the next, allowed me to be on their team – and they gave me the ball every single time I asked to pitch. (I don’t know why, but I’ll always be eternally grateful for their kindness.)
During the season I wasn’t great. I really wasn’t even very good. I did get better as the year went on, but in the end, in six starts I went 0-5.
Still, I did it.
It wasn’t the Major Leagues, not even close, but, in a way, for me, it was. Around an injury, one that still might need surgery, I became a pitcher.
In my mind, and in my memories, it was the big leagues.
The fact that I got to play a bunch of games with my son Ethan made it that much more special. I’ll hold those memories deep within my heart forever – especially the game he was my catcher. Playing ball with Ethan, together, as adults, is worth any amount of pain, and injury. It just is. I’d do again in a minute. No questions asked. The pain is secondary when one has the chance to play ball with his son.
I hope, beyond hope, that we play again together next year.
In the end, this was a season I’ll never forget.
I wish it wasn’t over.
As we were leaving the field, one of the players on the team asked, “Dr. Sem, will you be playing with us in the fall league?”
I replied, “ABSOLUTELY! If my Achilles hangs on, I’ll be out there!”
The dream, my ever elusive dream, is still alive!
Previous installments of this series can be found here:
This series can also be found at www.drpaulsem.com.