Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (Injury)

This is part 3 (Age 12, 6th grade) of an ongoing series following a young player’s baseball career from Little League to College Baseball. In order to get the most out of this series, be sure to start at the beginning.

After the fall baseball season ended, Leo again played basketball. Though Leo was excited at the start the basketball season, it was clearly not his favorite sport. That would be baseball.

Image courtesy pixabay.com

Leo also took up skateboarding. Wayne was not happy. Wayne “couldn’t stand the skateboard (post 364).”

Skateboard injuries are common, so Wayne was of course concerned about the risk of injury. But it was more than that. In Wayne’s words (post 488):

My boy still has several friends who don’t play any sports. All they care about is skateboarding. They have long hair, wear their clothes like a mess, and I’ve never heard them say yes sir, no sir. They don’t appear to have any goals and have no respect for elders.

So help me, my boy will not turn out this way. Baseball teaches many things in life, and I’m a firm believer that it teaches much more than how to play the game or just win or lose.

Or course, any physical activity is good for young athletes. Skateboarding is particularly good for developing balance, coordination, and agility. Even Wayne acknowledged that it is better to be using one’s body outside “rather than playing the Xbox (post 488).” But in Wayne’s mind, skateboarding represented a way of life that he didn’t want Leo to have any part of.

As it turned out, Leo didn’t get injured from his new skateboarding hobby. And luckily, at least from Wayne’s point of view, Leo was still quite happy to play baseball.

The travel ball team that Leo had enjoyed so much last summer and fall disbanded permanently. So Leo tried out for another travel team and made it, with his reputation preceding him. Wayne reported that the travel ball coach said (post 367):

I remember him. He threw out a bunch of my players last year while trying to steal second base.

Leo also joined a local Cal Ripken rec league that looked to have a higher quality of play than what he’d experienced in his prior years with Little League, despite poorly maintained fields. Leo had many friends in this rec league and expected he would have a lot of fun playing with and against his friends.

Unfortunately, this particular Cal Ripken league didn’t have the best system for drafting players. Two different teams managed to exploit weaknesses in the system to end up with “stacked teams” with most of the top players. Leo ended up on a team with mostly beginners.

An all too common problem for many recreation leagues is poor or unenforced baseball drafting policy, which results in very unbalanced teams. It doesn’t have to be that way. With good drafting policy at the board level, drafts generally produce balanced teams, with few instances of undefeated or winless teams.

For the first time in his life, Leo experienced some arm soreness during the pre-season as he started to throw. Wayne was quite concerned as he knew that arm injuries are a common issue for pitchers, including youth baseball pitchers. However, it turned out to be not much of anything. It seemed to be the good kind of muscle soreness, from starting up a little too quickly after laying off for the winter.

After a few days of rest, Leo’s arm was fine. Leo worked harder than ever at his game. He was also working harder at school, as he got back a report card with only one C, barely missing honor roll. He also got recognition for having dramatically improved his grades.

Unfortunately, just days before his first Cal Ripken game (post 382) . . .

Yesterday I’m playing very very very soft toss with a football with my boy in the backyard. I’m grilling out so while I’m flipping the burgers we throw the football a little. Of course you know what happens…HE BREAKS HIS FREAKING FINGER!!! Weeks of working his tail off and a freak thing happens and he breaks his finger.

We took him to the emergency room, and they put a splint on it. It’s the weekend so they told us to go to a bone doctor on Monday. So tomorrow we’ll see how bad it really is. My guess is his season is over before it began this year. What a freaking shame…my goodness. It’s hard to believe this can happen.

image courtesy of BodyParts3D/Anatomography

Turned out it was a fractured bone in his fifth finger. Leo got a cast and had to sit out all the games and practices for the rest of April. Needless to say, “it was a long long looooooonggggg . . . three weeks (post 386)” for Leo.

Leo finally got to play his first game of the year in May, two hours after he got his cast off. In that first game, Wayne wrote (post 386):

His first at bat he hit a deep ball to right field and hit a triple. His first game was very good and [he] went 1 for 2 at the plate. He played SS and I was nervous because he hasn’t taken ground balls in almost a month. He was lights out. We had one play where the hitter hit him a rocket and he bobbled the ball and it rolled a foot or so behind him. I was thinking to myself that he made a good play just to stay in front of it and stop the ball. Well, he ran to the ball and threw a rocket to first base and threw the boy out. I couldn’t believe it and the people in the stands gasped at the throw he made. I heard some people in the stands yelling “NO WAY HE MADE THAT THROW!” The boy was just a few feet from first when he threw it and he got him out by a full step.

Leo wore a removable splint on his fingers for the first two weeks back playing baseball (which he removed when playing), and then he was back to normal.

Despite the forced month off, rec ball went well for Leo, with his pitching at a higher level than ever. His hitting was so good that some rec teams, including the two stacked teams (with managers who wanted to win at any cost), instructed their pitchers to stop throwing him anything to hit. Leo got intentionally walked more than a few times.

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Does Injury Set Back a Young Athlete's Progress? Should Parents be Extra Cautious?

Did this injury set back Leo’s performance relative to his peers or his future baseball prospects? It’s hard to know for sure, but from the sound of it, he was still performing at a very high level. If someone had observed Leo playing in May of this year compared to May of the prior year, they would have never guessed he missed the first month of the season. Being out for a month may have had some kind of impact, but if so it wasn't easily observable. I have seen this with other athlete's as well. Missing a month once every couple of years does not seem to have much of an impact.

Another interesting thing about this injury was to think about the cause. It didn't come from dangerous skateboarding. It didn't come from a pitcher arm injury (an all too frequent occurrence in youth baseball these days). It didn't come from any other common baseball activity such as getting hit by a pitch or being hit by a line drive in the pitcher position. It happened when Leo wasn't doing anything dangerous at all. He was just catching a gently thrown football.

These freak injury stories are all too common. The kid who gets a concussion while playing tag. Or another who breaks an ankle falling off a play structure from a height of two feet. Injuries can come at any time from any source, and there’s no way a parent can possibly prevent all potential sources of injury. So get used to it. If you have a physically active kid, expect an occasional injury. But also understand that kids heal faster than adults. You might be pleasantly surprised how quickly and completely they recover.

Despite Wayne’s initial thought that Leo would be out for the season, Leo did fine. He fielded well. He hit well. And his pitching was great. Especially remarkable was his tenacity as pitcher no matter how many errors there were behind him. And yes, there were a lot of errors. His team lost most of its games. The many beginners on the team had to learn how to play the game, after all.

The travel team Leo joined a few months earlier didn’t play in any tournaments until June. At his first travel ball pitching outing, he threw 60 MPH strikes. The other team had competent hitting and managed to get a lot of hits off him. Leo accepted the result with a good attitude, which was not something he might have been able to do in prior years, given his fiercely competitive nature. He was maturing as a ball player and a person.

Leo made the Cal Ripken all-star team despite the all-star roster not having seen any changes for years. He elected to drop off the travel team and stick with the promising all-star team. The head coach was very good, with both college baseball experience and good coaching skills.

The all-star coach drilled them hard in preparation for the state championship in July. As is typical for a team that doesn’t often see new players or coaches, Leo had to work very hard at his game to prove his value. A coach isn’t going to sit a player who has reliably played the same position for years unless very confident that the replacement player will be an improvement. There were some hurt feelings when Leo eventually became the main shortstop, replacing a player who had been at that position for several years in a row of all-star play.

The all-star season culminated with a series of state championship games. It was a very positive experience, as Leo’s team did very well, only losing (twice) to the eventual winner, placing 3rd overall in the state. Leo played well, and the family ended the season on a high note, with very fond memories.

Leo signed up for both rec baseball and football in the fall. Football turned out to be disappointing. He was one of the smallest players. The first time he missed an easy tackle, he was essentially benched for the rest of the season. As the short kid, he wasn’t given a second chance.

Just before Leo’s 13th birthday in October, he was 5′ 1″, 105 lbs.

Leo began to sour on football. But that didn’t matter, because some baseball excitement was just around the corner. Leo was about to become part of a school team for the first time, and not just any school. His school was one of the biggest in the state. With such a large pool of players to draw from, Leo would almost surely be surrounded by some very good ball players.

That is, if he could make the team.

Part 4 of Leo’s story: Middle School Tryout (age 13, 7th grade)

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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