GOOSE LAKE -- This game -- whether by a walk-off homer or a game-ending strikeout -- can end in the blink of an eye.
True to life.
A minor leaguer with the New York Mets franchise, Tyler Howe’s career was on the rise in spring 2010. A 2008 draft pick, he had converted from catcher to pitcher a season before after playing NCAA Division-I baseball at the University of Kentucky.
“In 2009, I didn’t give up a run,” Howe said. “Then I was going into spring training as a closer. I was doing real well -- working out with a couple of higher groups.
“Then, on the last day of spring training, in an exhibition game, I popped my elbow.”
In the blink of an eye, Howe’s career was doomed. The injury forced him to have Tommy John’s surgery, the proverbial death sentence for professional pitchers. Howe tried to rehabilitate the injury, but after two years of fighting his way back, decided he had enough.
The day before he was set to have a second surgery, Howe decided to leave the game.
“I retired on July 4, 2012. My surgery was scheduled for July 5 in New York City,” he said.
That experience taught Howe, now the head baseball coach at Northeast, a valuable lesson: Take nothing for granted. Closing a career to injury might have left anyone bitter, but not him.
“I love the game,” Howe said. “Honestly, I can’t imagine life without the game. Baseball’s given me a lot in life as far as all the different teams I was able to play on... It was my time to start giving back to the game.”
At 27, he’s less than 10 years older than his oldest players, whom he met only five months ago. Howe stressed getting his inherited seniors on board with hopes of getting the rest of the team to buy into him as a new coach.
He immediately made his three seniors -- Cole Dickey, Jared Henfrey and Ben Hildebrandt -- captains. Their assent has paid off for the Rebels, who are now 9-2 and 6-0 in the Big East Conference. Dickey leads the team as Northeast’s top pitcher with 30 strikeouts in five starts; his Earned Run Average (ERA) through 23 1/3 innings is a whopping 0.60.
Meanwhile Hildebrandt is batting .282, second on the team with 11 hits and 12 runs. Henfrey leads the team with 14 RBIs, three doubles and nine stolen bases. Other upperclassmen -- juniors Charlie Marcucci (14 stolen bases, 17 hits, .472 average) and Tevin Stoecker (two home runs, 11 hits, .324 average) -- have helped set an example for younger regulars in the Rebel lineup (sophomore Matt Haferbier and freshman Ketzalli Dondiego).
Together, each senior said they’re unified in a goal to win the conference, something they said was attainable last year but didn’t happen.
“Last year it was always our goal, but we weren’t always focused on it,” Dickey said. “We knew we had another year, but this is our last go around and we want to go out the best way possible.”
Howe added: “Coming into it... I hadn’t really seen any of these three play before. So I knew learning the guys, what I was going to demand: play hard, sprint out and see where the season takes us.”
It was no trouble for any of them to buy into How and his pedigree. Professional experience aside, he’s former player at Northeast, he inherited the team from his father, Jeff; his mother, Teri, is Northeast’s Athletic Director.
But high level experience doesn’t hurt either...
“He’s got more experience playing, a good coach who knows his stuff,” Henfrey said.
“He thinks of the game in different ways,” Hildebrandt said. “His experience just helps us more.”
“I took from what I feel have been some of my better coaches, better communicators as far as teaching the game,” Howe said. “I’ve tried to adapt a few of their coaching styles and carry that over into my own personal coaching career.”
With the Rebels, Howe is often heard reciting the credo “Play every pitch.” It’s an abbreviation of his true message.
“It’s something I never told (my) guys,” he said of his minor league career. “You never know when it’s going to be your last pitch... I threw mine in an actual game on April 10, 2010. I had no idea it was going to be my last pitch. You never know if it’s going to be your last pitch, and that’s why every pitch is so important.
“You play every one as hard as you can. You’ll win enough of those pitches that you can win the ball game.”
Northeast has high goals, but the philosophy boils down to a next batter, next game approach. On Thursday, the Rebels host Marquette Catholic, a team that plans to contend in a competitive Big East in 2013. The Mohawks split with Calamus-Wheatland on Monday, another team aiming to fend for the title.
“Each game in conference, that’s the most important game,” Howe said. “For us, right now, it’s Thursday against Marquette. After that it might change, but in order for us to go where we want, each little thing along the way has got to be taken care of.”
But even the determined Rebels can admire what they’ve done. Henfrey said this season is unlike his other three.
“We’re off to a way better start than last year,” he said. “We’re getting our confidence up.”
Three week’s into the season, Howe’s captains appear to have the message droned into them; “Play hard every pitch,” Henfrey, Dickey and Hildebrandt kept reiterating.
“We want to go hard every day,” Dickey said. “Go out with a bang, the way all seniors do. Winning the Big East and hopefully going to state -- that’s the goal. We try every day to push (our teammates) harder just so we can accomplish our goals.”
Out of this game came bitter reality for Howe. In the blink of an eye, it transformed into a motto, a strategy and then a lesson that goes beyond the diamond.
True to life.