GETTING BACK IN THE SWING
A summer to smile again
UF baseball player Brandon McArthur is back at bat this summer after his horrific injury
Published: Thursday, July 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2004 at 11:43 p.m.
The smells were back. The leather glove, the freshly mowed grass, the popcorn pouring out of a metal cooker into the bags of waiting children.
Taking his position at third base, he wanted the ball to be hit to him, wanted to get that feeling again of adjusting to a bad hop and making a perfect throw to the big mitt across the diamond.
God, how he missed it all.
Brandon McArthur waited more than a year for baseball to be real again. On Monday in Rochester, Minn., it happened.
It was his first game of summer league ball, his first game since his life was almost taken away by a random act of violence that changed the way he looks at everything.
He was back. He couldn't be happier.
"It's what I've been waiting for for a long time," he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
You could hear the excitement in his voice, the thrill of finally playing the game he loves so much. There have been practices and scrimmages since his life was turned upside down, but this was a game where they kept score and declared a winner and a loser and his play had an effect on which team high-fived after the final out.
Monday night was the comeback game for a young man who had to wonder if he'd ever play again but fought through rehabilitation with that one goal in mind.
Most of you know his story, either by reading it in The Sun or seeing a recent piece on ESPN. McArthur, who turned down pro ball after being picked in the fifth round by Minnesota, was easing into his life as a University of Florida college student and Gator baseball player when everything changed in October.
As he glanced down at his cell phone while standing outside a Gainesville bar, he was sucker punched, knocked out cold. His head hit the wall and the sidewalk. As he laid on the ground unconscious, he began to vomit.
The blood clot that resulted from the injury caused swelling in McArthur's brain, and he underwent two surgeries and spent five days in a drug-induced coma. Then began the long road back to baseball.
He returned to school and the practice field in January, still trying to regain his skills and strength. McArthur spent many games in the Gator dugout, dressed out but knowing he would not play because Florida coaches did not want to waste a redshirt season for a few at-bats.
"We felt very strongly that he had made tremendous jumps and tremendous strides," said Florida coach Pat McMahon. "We were so pleased with it, but do you go ahead and play him with a limited number of games remaining and if there's any regression you jeopardize the redshirt?
"He could have played, and we were so excited to see him so close to where he was. Brandon showed tremendous leadership off the field as well as on it in scrimmages and practices. I'm excited for him, and I'm thankful to the good Lord every day. I'm so proud of him."
As the season wore down, McArthur knew that summer baseball was around the corner. But there would be another setback.
While Florida was playing Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Birmingham, Ala., McArthur was at a friend's house in Brandon. Suddenly, a seizure hit McArthur and he passed out, hitting the right side of his head (his previous surgeries were on the left) on the floor. When he woke up in a Tampa hospital, the doctors told him he had two choices - he could wait for three weeks to see if the blood clot in his brain dissipated or have surgery.
"I didn't want to waste time," he said. "I wanted to go right into surgery."
A hole was drilled into his head to drain the clot, and he was out of the hospital the next day. He still has to take daily medication to avoid another seizure.
"It wasn't scary, it just upset me because I had waited so long to play," he said. "I had been waiting months to play baseball."
The wait finally ended Monday night when he pulled on a uniform for the Rochester Honkers and took the field. McArthur said his quickness is still coming around, but everything else is fine.
Then, he showed it.
The first real live pitch he had seen in more than a year, since his final high school game, came spinning toward the plate.
McArthur drilled the pitch into the outfield for a single, bringing home a run.
"It was a great feeling," he said.
In two games, he has two hits, is fielding his position and enjoying life. It's a message he offers to all the curiosity seekers who ask him about his story, the tragedy and rebirth.
He gets it all the time, from teammates and players on other teams. They want to know what it was like, how bad it was.
"I never get tired of talking about it," he said. "I tell them all the same thing. Enjoy every day of your life, live every day to the fullest. You never know when it's going to be your last."
Every day is fun now for McArthur because baseball is back in it. He'll treasure every at-bat, every ground ball this summer, but always with an eye toward returning to school and playing for the Gators.
"I can't wait to play," he said. "I can't wait to finally do what I came there to do - to play baseball for Florida.
"I want to be part of the team for real."
You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 374-5053.
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