This is Part 3 of a series of articles written by Matthew Coller co-authored with professional baseball player Matt Antonellii about his 2011 baseball season.The series will chronicle Antonelli's journey trying to make it back to Major League Baseball. Read Part 1 here about Antonelli being non-tendered, then signed, and Part II here about his time with the Washington Nationals
Half way through yet another extended spring training game, Matt Antonelli's manager took him out of the game. He told the former first-round draft pick to get his stuff and leave. Antonelli hustled to his vehicle and jumped on the highway and made the two hour drive back to his hotel.
Matt runs pretty hard to first base. I'd be willing to bet he hustled harder to pack up his things, check out of his hotel in Viera, Fla. and start heading North.
It takes 16 hours and 39 minutes to travel the 1,023 miles from Viera to Harrisburg, Pa. Unfortunately, there would have to be another night in a hotel. South Carolina seemed right. If he hit the road early, Matt could make it to Harrisburg before Senators manager Tony Beasley made out the lineup card.
The last time he slept in a bed that he had to make was three months ago. The 26-year-old, who was designated for assignment by the San Diego Padres last off-season, signed with the Washington Nationals because there seemed like a good chance he could return to the Major Leagues. Mid-way through Spring Training the ugly head of injury reared, keeping him in Florida. Keeping him in a hotel.
Injuries had kept Antonelli from The Show since 2008, where he'd played 21 games on a September call-up. This one, was a hamstring. Standing on second base with the back of his leg on fire, a million thoughts started to run through his head.
First to his mind was the two years playing with severe pain in his wrist, then the eight months recovering. He remembered how at first, he took cortisone shots. Then he saw specialists. Then he saw more specialists. Nobody could figure out exactly what was causing the pain that was deflating his career. Every swing was like being stabbed by knives. More specialists, more confusion and the growing concern that he would never play baseball again without being stabbed in the hand.
Turns out the knife was a broken hamate bone. “I was actually relieved,” Antonelli said. “Since I was told for so long that nothing was wrong with me, I thought I would never be able to play pain free again, because there was nothing to fix. Knowing that there had been a problem, and that I hadn't gone crazy, was actually good news. “
Surgery was the easy part. Rehab is what sucked. He was used to having power and precision in his hands, after the surgery he struggled to take a shower or hold a cooking pan. The rehab started with making little stacks of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Then weeks of boredom and menial tasks like squeezing a rehab ball and lifting weights fit for the elderly. His girlfriend was there to hang out, but Matt took rehab like a border collie takes being locked inside on a rainy day.
So, he stood on second base in Viera, Fla., with a fire burning in his hamstring, thinking about rehab. Walking off gingerly, reminding himself about how the pain in his wrist that dragged him under came back a few months later and about a cyst that developed after the first surgery. He walked into the dugout, remembering his second surgery, second time stacking pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters and his second time thinking his career might be over.
“I guess I learned a lot throughout my eight months of surgery and rehab,” Matt said. “I learned a lot about staying positive when nothing seems to want to go your way. If I had given up after my first surgery didn't work, I wouldn't be playing right now. I've learned a lot about being patient and staying determined in the face of adversity. I've always believed that certain things happen for a reason, that helped me continue to stay patient and positive.”
Turns out his hamstring injury wasn't serious. And he hasn't felt pain in his wrist in months. After a few weeks of exhibition games, he was headed North to get back into one that would at least show up on Baseball-Reference.com under “minors” for the Double-A Senators.
What else is there to think about during a 16-hour drive except, oh, everything? Breaking down every line-drive during the Spring, thinking about how to repeat it. Picturing short hops and off-balance throws. Trying not to think about his wrist. Trying to think about how it felt to hit a home run in The Show. Dying to do it again.
But Matt would never admit to thinking such things. Maybe he isn't even lying. Ballplayers perform psychological magic all the time, tricking their minds into only focusing on the next game or next plate appearance. It's kind of like tight rope walkers teach themselves to not look down. He calls it the “Yes, Yes, No” approach in a video made for young ballplayers. “The only thing you can think about is the pitch,” he says.
He doesn't arrive in time before his skipper makes out the lineup card. After 16 hours on the road, he'll wait 24 more trying not to look down.
What landed him in Double-A was a rusty Spring Training bat. Maybe the injury was a blessing, giving him time to get his swing back because the night after his 16 hour drive, he started at third base and went 2-for-4. “Feels good to be back playing again!” He wrote in an email.
That's as much as he's had time to talk, lately. After a week-and-a-half in another hotel, Antonelli was looking for apartments in Harrisburg. He was looking for a three-month lease. Good thing he didn't find one. Just a few weeks after his manager in Viera sent him packing, Triple-A came calling.
“Just arrived in Rochester, New York,” he put out on his popular Twitter page. Another long drive – Harrisburg is at least six hours from Rochester – and then another 24 hours out of the lineup before he can step into the box as a Syracuse Chief. And another night of room service.
There was his name on the big board at Frontier Field in Rochester, batting eighth hitting .222, then .180 something after his first at-bat, then .250 or so after a hit. He showed range to both sides, making a diving play to prevent a run in the third inning then later making an off-balance throw behind second base to nab the runner. At the plate, he struck out twice then lined a single off the pitcher.
Funny thing about strikeouts is when you've been through hell to get back to the Majors, getting called out on strikes is one thousand times more devastating. The Chiefs were up by six runs or so when Antonelli was rung up on a high curveball. He didn't argue or show up the umpire, but as he was putting away his bat and gloves, he indicated to a teammate with a flat hand waived across his chest that the pitch had been high. He shook his head back and forth, not with rage but as if to say: “that guy just hurt my chances.”
Antonelli also made a throwing error, rushing a toss to second base. He stared down at his hand with the same face he made after striking out looking.
He didn't seem quite comfortable then, playing like someone was looking over his shoulder or down at his wrist. But, as they say, hitters hit. And with a healthy wrist, Matt Antonelli is nothing if not a hitter. After 14 games, he is batting .359 with a .432 on-base percentage and .970 OPS.
Matt has been able to shut out that guy looking over his shoulder. He's been able to shut out looking down at injuries that almost ended his career. Now, he's looking for a three-month lease in Syracuse. Maybe he won't need that one, either.
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Matthew Coller is a senior staff member of the Business of Sports Network, and is a freelance writer. He can be followed on Twitter
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