February 6, 2014

CBI Big Ten Preview

Nine Innings with PSU's Rob Cooper

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Stevens, Kinley share new perspectives on baseball

By Chris Webb

Special to CollegeBaseballInsider.com


There’s a beauty in baseball that resides in the next opportunity. A batter may strike out on three pitches but will have another at-bat in a few innings. A closer may give up a walk-off home run, but his coach will give him the ball to close the next game. Over a 56-game schedule, there are countless opportunities to fail and countless opportunities to redeem.


But what happens when there isn’t a next pitch, a next inning, a next game? For two Big Ten players, returning to the diamond there was uncertainty on when the next opportunity may come.


Northwestern junior infielder Cody Stevens (pictured above) and Michigan State junior reliever Jeff Kinley will suit up for the Wildcats and Spartans at the season’s beginning after lengthy time off the diamond with because of battles with blood clots.


On June 15, 2012, Stevens was at the plate for the Chillicothe Paints of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League. A wild pitch from West Virginia Miner Will Blalock struck Stevens above the left ear, beginning a series of traumatic events. On the bus ride home following the game, effects from the concussion amplified. Rushed to a hospital in Beckley, W.Va., doctors determined Stevens should be flown to Charleston, W.Va., where doctors performed emergency surgery as a developed blood clot threatened his life. Stevens spent three weeks in the hospital and began to view baseball – and its role in life – in a different light once the serious nature of the injury and surgery passed.


“You kind of learn about what matters to you,” Stevens said about the experience of possibly never playing baseball again. “In that time after the initial three weeks, and when I learned I was OK, you start to get past the ‘Why did this happen to me?’ and ‘Why now?’ You find out what you truly enjoy doing and those things that you can still do.”


For Stevens, what he truly enjoys is baseball. The unfortunate injury sustained playing the game he loved only strengthening the passion.


“During that time, every single doctor I saw was asking if I wanted to play again. I would always say yes.


“This is something I love to do, I’ve always wanted to play baseball at this level and move on and see where it can take me in life. Even if I can’t play for whatever reason, I still want to be able to be involved.”


Kinley’s blood clot wasn’t located in a life-threatening spot; but the clot in his right shoulder took him away from the game. As Michigan State sought to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, losing the junior closer after seven games was a painful experience.


“It was hard, definitely hard,” Kinley (left) said. “Just knowing that there is nothing you can do to help your team out, help them to the Big Ten Tournament, which we did not get to.”


Michigan State finished seventh in the Big Ten, a place out of the six-team tournament field.


More painstakingly, NCAA Division I Baseball Committee chairman Dennis Farrell said the Spartans were the first time out of the 64-team NCAA Tournament. With Kinley, along with senior captains Jordan Keur (Achilles’ Tendon) and John Martinez (ACL) also lost for the season, there is a what-if to the 2013 season for the 2012 Palo Alto Regional participants.


Looking forward, not back, is what Kinley has done. And as he is ready to toe the rubber once again; the time away from the field has increased his appreciation for the game.


“I appreciate practice a lot more,” said Kinley, who went 6-5 with a 2.47 ERA and two saves in 2012. “I can’t wait to actually get out there, outside on a field. Definitely am a lot more anxious since it has been a while since I’ve been on a mound in a real game. I think it’ll be surreal to be back on the mound.”


Stevens, the son of Wildcats coach Paul Stevens and a recipient of the CollegeBaseballInsider.com’s 2013 Tom Walter College Baseball Inspiration Award, also was provided a new lens in how to view the game of baseball, the practice and process.


“It definitely gives you a new perspective,” Stevens said. “A few days ago I had a rough time hitting live in the cage. You look at it and think, ‘Yeah, I didn’t do well today, but in the grand scheme of life how are you doing?’ And I would say I’m doing pretty well. One, I’m alive, two, I’ve overcome this crazy, ridiculous injury that a lot of people don’t come back from with full movement and full health, and that I have to be thankful for. You look at it, turn to the next day and go ‘Alright, there’s always tomorrow, I can move on.’”


(photos courtesy of NU & MSU Media Relations Offices)