Local sandlot baseball was and, to a large degree, still is really a working man’s league.
Nearly all who participate in either the Central or Susquehanna Leagues have day or night jobs — sometimes both — that take up a large portion of their week.
Those same players, however, freely spend their precious time outside of their professions and families to scratch an itch that is a burning passion for the game of baseball. That is why it is often so difficult for a lot of the greatest players to retire.
It’s also the same reason that fueled Angel Matias to battle through some darkness. And, to a strange extent, it might a major reason that the Express standout is off to the best start of his career.
Matias, Hallam’s regular first baseman, has been playing in the Susquehanna League since he was 16 years old. That was 11 long years ago, but the same passion to play motivates the left-handed hitting slugger for the Express. He’s been nearly unstoppable so far this season batting well over .400 with more than 15 RBIs.
The fact that Matias is hitting well in no real surprise, however. Many fans and peers in the league know him to be a tough out whenever he has a bat in his hands.
Debilitating injury: But an unfortunate injury while playing with his team in the Tom Kerrigan Colonial York Tournament over Labor Day weekend put everything in jeopardy. He tore the Achilles tendon in his right leg while making a play on a bunt.
“I was playing first and a guy got on base,” Matias said. “I went to cover a bunt and it just popped like a glow stick when you snap it in half. It just went. I got up thinking maybe I tripped but I lost everything. My leg just went completely numb.”
Matias, visibly disappointed with the situation, was helped off the field but didn’t seek medical attention immediately. A player of the mold of Matias, who never wants to sit on the bench, waited so he could be with his teammates instead.
“I wanted to enjoy my Labor Day weekend,” he said, smiling. “So I went Monday morning.”
The news Monday was predictable, yet still shocking. After the physician told him it was one of the worst Achilles injuries he'd ever seen, the timetable to return to action was set much higher than Matias expected — 9-12 months.
“My heart just dropped,” he said. “I knew that meant that I couldn’t play (this) year. I wasn’t even worried about work…I was like ‘Ah (shoot) I can’t play’. Instantly when I hear that I texted (Jon) Benchich, I texted Jaron (Shimmel), I texted Dan (Wecker), who is my best friend and buddy on the team. I texted everybody…I’m out, I’m out for the whole year.”
Hallam manager Terry Golden knew that the news was like a knife to the heart for a guy like Matias, who Golden introduced to the league 11 seasons ago while he was in high school at York Suburban.
“He loves baseball,” Golden said. “He’s sort of a throwback kind of a guy. He lives and dies for baseball and you need those kind of players on your team to get you fired up to play the game.”
That day in early September of last year was, as Matias describes it, the worst day of his life. The thought of sitting on the sideline was certainly not what he envisioned. He was on crutches for several weeks before he was fitted for a special boot.
“I couldn’t bend my ankle at all,” Matias said. “So they had to give me a special instrument because I couldn’t fit into the boot at all. Not at a 180 degree angle.”
Defying the odds: The feeling of helplessness was not something that he enjoyed at all. So Matias made a commitment to himself and his team to do all that he could to make the recovery time as quick as possible. He went through many grueling workouts — eventually becoming an hour each session, three times a week — to help rebuild strength in his repaired tendon.
“As soon as they allowed me to start home workouts, I just started busting my butt on them,” he said. “I said to myself that there was no way that I wasn’t going to play next year. I love my team too much. There was no way I was going to sit out and not play.”
The hard work paid off in the end. By the end of January — or just over four months after surgery — Matias got the news that put a smile on his face for seemingly a week.
“My doctor cleared me to go back to work,” Matias said. “And I said, ‘Can I play baseball?’ And he just said, ‘You can do whatever you want, young man.’ So I was like, ‘Alright…awesome’.”
Just as quickly as he texted out the bad news back in September, Matias couldn’t wait to share news that defied all of the odds.
“I texted everybody and said ‘I’M BACK!’,” he said. “It was a big group text. It was like the best day of my life.”
Golden had no reservations about letting Matias back on the field playing first base to begin the season.
Turns out, it was a no brainer.
“I was told he had clearance and he really wanted to play,” Golden said. “I planned to probably DH him more, especially at the beginning of the season. But he came out this year in preseason practices looking good, hitting the ball. And since the first game of the season he’s been out there playing incredible defense.”
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at email@example.com