When you talk to teammates about the line drive which struck Cardinals pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon on the right side of his head, you get recollections of feelings and sounds. It happened so fast that there was no time to see it.
Pitcher Mike Mayers: “I really don’t know how to describe it. You could hear it. It was so loud and I just had this like, you know, this feeling.”
Outfielder Harrison Bader: “It was just a bad sound. You kind of remember the sound.”
Pitcher Luke Weaver: “That moment was terrifying. It almost felt like it was slow motion when it was happening.”
Ponce de Leon (he’s in the process of changing to the traditional spelling and prefers it that way) was struck on May 9th 2017 by a ball hit by Victor Caratini of the Iowa Cubs. That was the start of several months of rehabilitation, and at the beginning, baseball was the furthest concern from anyone’s mind.
Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak said, “I’ve been lucky in my career that I haven’t had too many of those types of phone calls. But I will say that the moment I heard that he had bleeding in the brain and when I asked the question, ‘is this a life and death situation,’ they said yes. So, that is odd.
“We deal with a lot of injuries in our game, but not one where you’re immediately reflecting on someone’s future in terms of living or dying.”
Ponce de Leon reflected only on baseball. When asked by a reporter if there was ever a moment that he doubted his comeback, the pitcher cut off the questioner mid-sentence.
Ponce de Leon was firm in his conviction that he’s located the source of that confidence, saying frankly that it comes from “God. My faith in Him. All of that confidence comes from Him. I don’t have any confidence in myself unless it’s Him.”
That reliance on faith was shared among his teammates. Mayers and Weaver were together in the stands charting pitchers that day, and in the immediate aftermath, Mayers said, “Weaver and I just started praying. Like, it just overwhelmed. That’s all that you feel like you could do.”
Ponce de Leon’s mother- and sister-in-law are in St. Louis today. So too are his uncle, his father, and his father’s boss.
His wife is here as well. With his wife is his son Casen, who’s now a year and a half old. Daniel got to spend time with his son during his recovery, and says now that having his son present for his first call-up is “the world to me.”
“I love him,” he said. “I didn’t know I’d love being a father this much, but I really do love it.”
Four of his current teammates (Bader, Mayers, Weaver, pitcher John Brebbia) and injured shortstop Paul DeJong were on the Memphis roster that day, and each beamed with a seeming combination of pride and relief as they shared smiles about the ascension of the man they call “Ponce.”
Said Weaver, “this is one of the coolest things that I’ve ever seen.”
“A guy who at any point could’ve got called up to fulfill his baseball dream of playing in the big leagues here, and that happened to him. It’s all part of life and you can’t expect that.
For his comeback, and the way he’s healed and persevered, to get back to where he is now and to throw really well down there and get his shot is, as a friend, really cool.”
“It’s just an incredible journey,” said Bader. “I’ve played with him for some time. It’s a special thing for him and definitely for me too, just to see him come back and do his thing.”
“It’s awesome,” Mayers said. “I think it says everything you need to know about him. He’s a tough guy, hard worker.
“There’s a lot of people that never would’ve got back on the mound, so for him to have the success he’s had in Triple-A and to get to this point says a lot about him.”
Bader said he hugged Ponce de Leon when he arrived in the clubhouse today “because we were part of that journey of making it here, and it’s your dream. It was a special, special moment for sure.”
As for Ponce de Leon, he joked that he hoped everyone had forgotten about the injury. He admitted, though, that his appearance might give him away.
“The dent will always be there,” he said, “but that’s not what’s going to define me.”
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