Updated: Apr 5, 2022
Have you ever used every emotion you have all at once? I have.
Most of the season went by in a blur. I watched from the sidelines in frustration.
It wasn’t until we had thirteen games left in the season when I got my real opportunity – only it wasn’t on the mound. That day, we learned that six of our players had gotten suspended indefinitely for plagiarizing an assignment. I remember standing there in shock, not knowing what to do or to say. The six guys we had lost were studs. They had contributed in every way – some on the mound, some on the field. It was hard to imagine a scenario in which we could simply replace the type of production these guys brought to the table with our already slim roster.
It took all of about ten minutes for Coach Kittle to tell us the news. He ended his speech with some words that left us with a simple choice: “Look around, this is all we’ve got. We can either figure out a way to win, or we can roll over and give up. It’s up to you.” The team remained with 8 position players, 2 starting pitchers, 3 relievers (one being me) and our team manager Jerry Skolnik. Jerry at the time was a young kid about 15 and was a student at Coach Kittle’s high school. Jerry was the heart and soul for Cabrillo baseball. As long as we had him, we had a fighting chance. Since day one, Jerry and I had a special connection. Jerry, who has developmental disabilities and cannot speak, always had a way of putting smiles on everyone's faces. Even though he couldn’t communicate with me, we had a certain level of mutual understanding.
After the meeting is when the rest of my career truly changed. Coach Kittle pulled me aside and asked something completely unexpected: “Can you play right field for us?” I started to laugh to myself. Right field. I have never played right field in my life. Kittle had recruited me, took me away from shortstop, and thrown me on the mound. Now he wanted me to go back to playing the field? And the outfield at that? Swallowing my pride, I gave him the classic “yes coach,” and carried on with practice, now a position player.
By the third game, every team knew about the weak arm in right field. They knew the opportunities they had to take extra bases when the ball was hit in my direction. I stuck with it, however, and, to everyone’s surprise I held my own. To everyone’s surprise except for mine, of course. I knew I could do it. I had experienced bigger challenges in my life. I may not have swung a bat for two and a half years, but I still had the fire it takes to be a hitter, and I helped our battered team limp into the playoffs. I remember closing out the regular season and promptly heading to the beach to celebrate. Sitting by the ocean with the breeze in my face, I thought to myself, “Man, I really have made my comeback. I can finally say I am a college athlete.” It may not have been the journey – or the destination – I had envisioned for myself, but I was here. I was competing at the college level, and not many people have the opportunity to say that. I was happy and satisfied. So much in fact, that my roommate had to remind me that my story is not done yet. I still had one more chapter to write, and it started that weekend in Marin, where we had to face one of the top ranked colleges in the state. To this day, I still think about that conversation. It was like he almost knew something...
Coach kittle and Coach Ditano had starting pitchers Matt Palazzo, Devin Loomis, and myself in the office on Thursday, going over the game plan. Yes, somehow I had found my way back into the rotation. But I was still our right fielder – who pitched – who also hit. Who knew, at this point. Palazzo was going to throw game one. Depending on the outcome of that game, Loomis was scheduled to start game two, and I was either to come in and relieve game two, or wait to start game 3. Matt Palazzo was a local guy who grew up close to me. He had that sort of fire you want out of your ace. He was the guy where you could throw on the mound and have full confidence in his ability to overpower a hitter. With his hat pulled down low over his eyes and a glare that could burn a hole through a hitter, he was the guy to set the tone for the series. I remember him looking at me going, “Drew let’s f****** go. You got this. Let’s go rep the valley”. As we are leaving the office, Coach Kittle stopped me. “Hold up Andy, be honest. How many innings you think you have in you this week?” I remember sitting there, much like I was months before at the exit meeting, finding myself saying “This is it coach. The time, the effort, the comeback, it all comes down to this. I told you I’m going down in the black and blue, so that’s what I’m going to do.” Kittle found little comfort in that answer, but he let me go nonetheless.
On Friday, we headed to Marin Community College. I could feel the tenseness on the van – a mixture of nerves and adrenaline, as the team prepared for battle. To no surprise Palazzo set the tone. With ice in his veins, he gutted out a 140-pitch complete game performance, shutting them out. And just like that, we were one game away from advancing.
The next morning, Coach Kittle called me over to ask how I was feeling. “Honestly, I may have an inning or two in me. We’ll see how I feel after I throw a little.” I went back to the locker room, got dressed and headed to the field. Game two we got ahead early but then fell behind late. Kittle asked, “You ready?” Even though I was, he and I both knew that we would have to start scoring in order for me to have a chance at closing this one out. We struggled to hit the rest of the game and went down without a fight. And just like that, I was back on the mound for game three.
Somehow, my career had returned me back to the mound. I vaguely remember words of encouragement from teammates here and there, but I was so locked in their words just faded into the rest of the background noise. Coach Ditano came down to the bullpen to see how I was doing. In all honesty, it felt like I could’ve sawed my arm off and it would’ve been less painful than throwing a ball. I was honest with him and told him a slightly lesser version of the true pain I was experiencing. He responds, “Hell, it’s already torn, you can’t hurt it anymore so don’t think about it. Just go out there and pitch your game.” As I warmed up in the bottom of the first, I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen. My arm could’ve fallen off and I would’ve probably just started throwing with my left hand.
I wound up for my first pitch of the game. I pretty much closed my eyes and let it go. Strike. I caught the ball from the catcher and started to walk back to the mound, a little more confident than before. I released the next pitch. The batter swung and grounded out to second. One out. I was locked in. I finished the first inning. Three up, three down. The second inning went similar to the first. The third went down smoothly as well. I was rolling. I couldn’t be stopped. As the 6tharrived, coach kittle came out of the dugout as we came off the field with a 4-1 lead with his hand outstretched as if to say my outing was done. “Get that s*** out of here, I’m finishing this thing.” While these words were inappropriate to say the least, Kittle and I had a relationship that went beyond that of a player and a coach. He understood I was lost in the heat of the moment, and he kept his cool. “Andy, you’re done. You have thrown more innings today than you have in your entire career. You’ve done your job.” I wasn’t having it. “I’m not finished until the inning says ‘9.’ Ask Ditano. I’m good to go.” I looked down in the dugout and Ditano, who I thought was going to agree with Kittle, was caught off guard. He gave me a thumbs up, though, and I was back in.
Look. To say my arm hurt was an understatement. I told Kittle I was good to go and I wasn’t coming out, but the truth was I couldn’t even feel my fingers. I honestly didn’t know if I had three more innings in me. Then, as if he knew exactly what I was thinking, Jerry, who had been up on the fence, cheering like he does every game, came and sat right next to me on the bench. He put his right arm around me with his left hand rubbing his heart, his own unique way of expressing his love. Jerry – the guy who had been in my corner from day one, gave me the love and confidence I needed to finish out my game. I could tell in his heart that he knew what was about to happen.
I managed to get through the 7thand 8thwithout an issue. Heading out for the bottom of the 9th, I felt nearly invincible. I had made it this far, three measly outs couldn’t stop me. I was past the point of pain, past the point of suffering. My arm had basically already fallen off. There was nothing else I had to lose. As Zane, our third baseman, handed me the ball for the start of the inning, I knew what was about to go down.
Each pitch felt like daggers in my shoulder. After every strike, I had to take a stroll around the mound in order to try and muster up enough strength to throw the next one. I go the first two outs easy. Then, as I felt closer than ever to being triumphant in the game I loved, I let go of a fastball that was sent back up the middle for a single, sending the tying run to the plate. So close, but yet so far away. I get ready to throw the first pitch.
I throw the next pitch.
On the third pitch, I threw a fastball with everything I had left. The batter swung and rolled over to shortstop. Our shortstop, Scott Akrop fielded the ball cleanly and threw a strike to our first baseman for the out.
Game Over. No longer in control of my body, I fell to my knees and let out a cry of relief. There’s no way to describe how it feels to give EVERYTHING you have to a moment until you have nothing left, leaving your gas tank ALL THE WAY empty. I was done. I couldn’t move. Every emotion I had put into the game came out all at once and was simultaneously drained from my body.
As I sat there on my knees, eight feet from first base pounding the ground, my legs were nonexistent. With the help of my coaches, I limped off the field with tears in my eyes. While I’m sure most people thought of this as another baseball game, I knew right as I had thrown that last pitch that that would be the last pitch I would ever throw in my career. I had given everything I had to this game. A year ago I never would’ve guessed that I would become a playoff hero. With my brothers in uniform surrounding me, I rejoiced and embraced the moment, as it would be the last time I felt these same emotions on a baseball field. I would forever cherish this moment for as long as I live.
We advanced to the next series against the top seeded Delta College, where we lost two games and finished our season. I turned in my jersey the following week, filled with satisfaction. I was leaving the game with no regrets. I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish during my career. My time playing baseball was complete.
When it comes to ending your career make sure it’s on YOUR terms. When the time comes, you will know. Adversity doesn’t have to end your career. Coaches don’t have to end your career. You do. You control your destiny. For me, my destiny was a pretty good one.