The Long Road

Six years ago, my son had the worst day of his young life. He’d been cut from his high school baseball team in his junior year. A couple of weeks ago he got the news he’d always dreamed of: He was selected by the Tampa Rays in the Major League Baseball draft. How did he get past that devastating setback and much more to be where he is now? The journey has been one that has left me prouder than I could ever imagine and should serve as inspiration to any youngster who faces adversity in sports.

Cade starred in football, basketball and baseball all through grade and middle school. He was well-known in the community as an athlete. If you asked him what he was going to do when he grew up, it was either play in the NFL or the Major Leagues. At the large, division one high school he attended, he started at wide receiver on the freshman football team, made the freshman basketball team and was the shortstop on the freshman baseball squad. His sophomore year he began experiencing some arm pain. He tried to play through it but it got so he couldn’t swing a bat. We took him to the doctor and learned that he had broken the growth plate in his throwing elbow. He would miss at least half the baseball season in a cast. When he returned, he took over as JV shortstop but he and I both got the sense that something in the coaches’ attitudes had changed and that maybe they had become bigger fans of other players.

That summer, before his junior year, he went through a huge growth spurt, going from 5’5” to 6’1” almost overnight. You would think that size would bode well for football, but he was now a bit awkward and had lost much of his speed because of the adjustment to his new body. When the varsity football season began, for the first time in his life, Cade found himself a bench-warmer. It was a tough pill to swallow, especially seeing kids who used to watch him from the sidelines, now starting ahead of him.

He was happy to have football end so he could get back to baseball. But as the tryouts neared, he expressed concern. He said he was not getting a good vibe from the coach. I dismissed this as unfounded worry. There was no way this kid, who had started at shortstop on the freshman and JV teams, who had always been one of the best players in our community, was not going to make the varsity team.

The day the teams were going to be announced was also my second son, Nick’s birthday. He was a year behind Cade, hoping to make the JV team, (which he did). Even after the head coach had made a speech to the kids about how he thought that coaches who don’t make cuts face-to-face were cowards, the day tryouts ended he announced that the roster would be posted on the team website. That evening, our whole family tried to act as though it was just another day while we waited for the names online. I don’t know that we even did anything special for Nick, we were all so anxious. Then, Cade went into the office where the computer was and shut the door. We waited for him to come out. When the door opened, the look on his face told me everything I needed to know. I scanned the web page and re-read it to make sure we hadn’t missed anything. I came out and told my wife the terrible news. Cade didn’t make the team.

To say it was like a death in the family may sound excessive but I can tell you it had all the same characteristics. The shock and numbness. The feeling of helplessness and despair. I called the coach. He didn’t answer and I left him a voice mail asking that he call me back. He never did. My daughter, who was ten at the time, couldn’t stop crying. Cade disappeared in his car and I spent an hour driving around town searching for him and trying to come to terms with this. Was his baseball career over? Just like that? My wife called to let me know he’d come back home. I went into his bedroom seeking the right words to say. I remember I told him that I bet there were other guys playing in the Major Leagues who had been cut from their high school team. He looked at me with eyes I could tell had been recently tear-filled and said that no, he was sure there weren’t. “Then you’ll be the first,” I said.

Suddenly, Cade had no place to play baseball. We were told of a wood bat spring league in Los Angeles comprised mostly of red-shirt college freshmen and others who weren’t playing high school for various reasons. Most of the games were two and a half hours away. Some were on school nights at 7:00 PM which meant that immediately after school he loaded his car, made the long drive alone to the game and back, often getting home around midnight. He struggled initially against the older kids on the mound. He was discouraged, maybe even doubting himself. But by the end of the season he was batting third in the lineup.

While this was going on, we found a new school for Cade to attend so that he could play his senior year. That fall, he began to fill into his new body and his determination to achieve his life’s goal took on a whole new life. He began lifting weights like never before. He found a teammate on the baseball team who would meet him early in the morning for batting practice. He got up each day at 6:00 AM and left the house while it was still dark. The two of them hit in the cage every morning before class, all fall and winter. There was never a free afternoon that he didn’t ask me to take him down to the field and pitch to him. I set up a wiffle ball machine in the garage and he hit off that every night.

Finally, the baseball season came. After having to use a wood bat against college pitching for a year, being able to swing aluminum against high school kids felt like shooting fish in a barrel. He batted .465 for the season, was voted League MVP and all-city. Still, because he’d missed his junior season, he only had offers from a few small four-year schools. His new club ball coach recommended he go the junior college route because he thought he’d have a better chance to get drafted into the pros. Since this was Cade’s only dream in life, we chose to have him go to a JC.

The junior college coaches did him a huge favor by realizing he was an outfielder, not an infielder. He had a great two-year career and was told by multiple coaches and scouts that he was a lock to be drafted as a sophomore. But, to his tremendous disappointment, his name was never called. So he had to mentally regroup again and reconcile to find a a four year school where he could continue playing. Though he had several D2 scholarship offers, the only D1 offers he had were walk-ons, which didn’t interest him.

Along the way a small NAIA school, San Diego Christian, had been recruiting him. They offered him a full scholarship, and their head coach was a former Major Leaguer. Cade knew he’d play every inning there. So he said yes even though we worried he might never be seen at such a small school with no history of success. But he felt if he put up big enough numbers, even at this tiny school he could get drafted after his junior season and go play in the pros.

His first three games were tremendous. He was batting .500. He was on his way to having the year he had dreamed of. Then, diving for a ball in center field, he came up holding his right arm. He immediately told me it was broken. I held out hope until we got to the hospital. It was confirmed. The elbow was broken and he would need surgery.

The surgeon told us that he’d never seen anything like this injury. That the growth plate he’d broken his sophomore year of high school had simply never healed. Worst of all, there was no guarantee it would heal this time either. There was a chance Cade’s career would be over. The doctor took a bone graft from the hip to try to promote the healing. After the surgery he said that best-case scenario we’d know in three months, but that it could be as many as six months before we’d have an answer. In the meantime, as soon as Cade could stand up and move without too much pain, he began hitting off the tee one-handed every day.

We went back to the surgeon in three months and got the best news possible. The bone had completely healed and was stronger than before. Cade was even cleared to play the final month of the season. When he came back, a team that had been 18-13 without him went on a 16-3 run and came within one game of the NAIA World Series. But, because of his injury, he’d missed the window to impress the MLB scouts and, again, went undrafted.

He spent the off-season in the weight room and batting cage. He added another fifteen pounds of muscle and came into his senior year 6’2”, 205. His speed was at an all-time high. Knowing that his final collegiate season was his last chance, he did what he needed to do: He finished with a .408 batting average, 11 home runs and 43 stolen bases. He was conference MVP, All-American, and helped lead tiny San Diego Christian to the NAIA World Series. Yet even with that performance, it took until the third day of the draft and lots and lots of names called ahead of his before he finally got the news of his life from the Rays. The anxiety leading up to that moment was excruciating. The joy and relief, overwhelming.

Now he has a clean slate; none of the accomplishments of the past have any meaning. But I have to believe the character he developed suffering setback after setback along the way does. What began as the worst possible thing that could have happened to him turned out to be the best. But only because he wouldn’t quit and was determined to turn any negative into a positive. That he decided it was up to him, not someone else, to say when he was done playing. He still has a long way to go to achieve his ultimate dream. But as I look at the distance he has yet to travel, it seems miniscule compared with how far he has come.

Brian Gotta is President of CoachDeck LLC (http://www.coachdeck.com). He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com.

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2 Responses

  1. Congrats to you all Brian. It’s a tough road but adding injury to the path nearly makes it impossible. Failure along the way isn’t easily overcome by players and their parents. I’m not sure we do enough for kids & parents to accept the change in their life that comes from a lifetime of sports coming to an end. Meanwhile keep up the great stories and sports tools while enjoying your son’s minor league experience.

  2. Brian,
    Great read, congratulations to Cade and hid courage!

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