Life in the Minors
Injury puts a damper on team’s fast start, coach’s special night
Life certainly has its ways of keeping things in perspective.
Getting off to the best start in franchise history has been great. After sweeping our season-opening series against the Windy City Thunderbolts, we kicked off a tough nine-game road trip with another sweep against the Southern Illinois Miners.
Through the first few games of our season, third baseman Alex Fonseca struggled at the plate. A former Los Angeles Angels farmhand, Alex is a talented ballplayer who has star potential with the bat, on the base paths and in the field. We knew he would break out of his early funk at some point - we just didn't know when.
In our series against Southern Illinois, Alex broke out in a very big way. After starting the year with just one hit in 17 at-bats, Alex had a monster day in our suspended doubleheader, which closed our series with the Miners, banging out two homers and a double.
The monkey was finally off his back, as he had been pressing to play to his ability. With lifted spirits and three more wins, we boarded the bus for the Chicago area to face the Thunderbolts at their stadium in Crestwood, Ill.
I was excited to return to the Windy City for a couple of reasons. First off, I was finally going to receive my championship ring from the Thunderbolts from last season. The other positive was that the Evansville Otters were off to a 6-0 start.
Arriving at the hotel early the next morning, we all stumbled off the bus, grabbed our luggage and sleepily made our way to our rooms at the Giorgio's Comfort Inn. When I awoke later that afternoon, there was a harsh chill in the air and gusting winds to boot.
By the time the first pitch rolled around at 7 p.m., the temperature had dropped into the 40s. It was so cold that I think I wore three different sets of long sleeve shirts under my jersey and a fleece pullover as well, and I was still freezing.
As cold as it was that night, the biggest chill came long before game time, during our pregame batting practice. It happened during our second round of B.P., as Otters manager Jason Verdugo and I were talking shop in the visitor's bullpen along the right field foul line. As moments like that always do, it happened in slow motion. Just as I looked up over Jason's shoulder toward the field, where hitting coach Bobby Bell was throwing batting practice to our guys, I saw Alex taking a ground ball off a fungo and turning as if to make a throw across the diamond to first base.
Just as Alex turned his head, a blistering line drive flew out of the batting cage and drilled him in the right eye. As we all watched in horror, Alex dropped to a knee as blood spouted from his head onto the infield dirt. Everything came to a screeching halt and all of a sudden, our attempt at a seventh straight win to open the season and the championship ring ceremony I had been looking forward to all offseason were not a priority.
Luckily for us, Bobby has experience in the medical field, and was there to make sure Alex had immediate care. Within minutes, an ambulance was at the stadium and Alex was rushed to Palos Community Hospital.
Batting practice eventually resumed, with the mood understandably more somber. After our final group of hitters finished, we returned to our office and tried to take it all in stride, but we couldn't. All we could do was hope for the best. In a touching show of support, our guys invited us into their clubhouse for a prayer for Alex. By the time the game started, all of our players had a No. 7 written on their caps, and Alex's jersey was hung in our dugout.
Updates during the game were scarce, as our team's athletic trainer did not charge his cell phone, so after the game everyone showered and boarded the bus for the hospital to see "Fonzie." By the time we arrived there, he had been moved to another area hospital and his mother was making plans to fly into town.
After hours of tests, MRIs, and examinations by several doctors, the initial diagnosis was that Alex's injury may be career-ending, which would be devastating for any 24-year-old.
The next day, he returned to the stadium in Windy City briefly to pick up his things from the clubhouse and say his good-byes. He was scheduled for a series of surgeries in Chicago and was headed home to Florida to recover, so he knew it was going to be the last time he'd see all of us for a while.
It was a moving moment for everyone. Alex was visibly emotional, and one by one he hugged us in the dugout with the thought that his budding baseball career was over. We were down 4-0 at the time, but for that instant, we all really didn't care. It was just nice to see Alex again.
Heading into surgery, the prognosis became a lot more optimistic. A number of plates were inserted into Alex's face to stabilize the area around his eye, and we received word as we made our way back from our game against the Gateway Grizzlies to our Ramada Inn here in Sauget, Ill., that the surgeries were a success, and that not only would Alex retain all of his vision, he would also be able to return to baseball in six weeks.
We actually came back and won that night against Windy City when Alex came to visit us. We entered the eighth inning down 7-2 and scored seven runs in the frame to win 9-7. Our guys showed a lot of fight and character to pull off that win. I'm sure Alex will show us that same resilience, too.
Brendan Sagara, a former Leilehua and University of Hawaii-Hilo pitcher, is the pitching coach for the Evansville Otters.