It was one of those moments that personifies the adage “how can you not get romantic about baseball?”
In the Brooks Bombers’ 2022 home-opener, second baseman Dax Wandler swung at an 0-2 offering from Lethbridge Bulls pitcher Weston Siefken and connected for a single.
It wasn’t just the club’s first game at Elks Field since 2019 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but it was also Wandler’s first at-bat for his hometown team after a tumultuous couple of years.
The young infielder injured his throwing shoulder just ten games into that 2019 season, and eventually required surgery to continue his baseball career.
“It was a bit nerve-wracking, as I haven’t been on the field for two years now,” Wandler told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “But at the end of the day, it’s just baseball and I know it by heart. It was fun and good to be back.”
He is still taking it day-by-day, working to get stronger and hoping to turn the heads of college baseball coaches willing to take a chance on a young man ready to fight for his opportunity.
Wandler remembers the initial injury like it was yesterday.
At home against the Fort McMurray Giants on June 22, 2019, he led the game off with a single. Diving back into first base, he felt something pop.
“It didn’t feel too nice,” Wandler recalled, as he was lifted from the game in the second inning.
The Okanagan College commit spent the next few weeks off before returning as some of his teammates started heading back to their college programs in early-August.
While he wasn’t at 100 per cent, Wandler headed to college in the fall thinking he would still be able to make an impression.
“I was balling out because I wanted to see if I could start,” he said. “We were playing some fall ball teams in October and, same thing, I’m on second base, I dive back and it just completely obliterated.”
The injury landed him in hospital, where he was put under to get the shoulder back into place.
STILL NOT RIGHT
Wandler thought he would be fine, until a trip to Las Vegas the following February.
“I started to throw and nothing felt right,” he said.
The Vauxhall Spurs product immediately tried to book an MRI, but couldn’t get one until August. On the drive back to Kelowna, he came to the realization that he had torn something in his shoulder.
With the pandemic taking its toll on the health care system, he wasn’t able to get a surgery booked until May 2021.
Once the operation was complete, Wandler was left in a shoulder sling, unable to play the game he loves until it healed and he was able to rehabilitate it.
“I latched onto a good facility in Medicine Hat and they were awesome,” he said. “We got after it once a week, I would head out there and they showed me exercises and everything to get ready for baseball.”
THE MENTAL GRIND
Not only was Wandler facing the physical challenge of coming back from an injury of that magnitude, he also had to overcome the psychological impacts.
He admits there were a lot of ups and downs during his recuperation, as he questioned whether he would even be able to play again.
“I really had to push myself through it,” Wandler said. “I had to stay in good shape, go to the gym and everything, and not do anything stupid to re-hurt my shoulder.”
He also thought of the unexpected time off as an opportunity to explore his off-field options and to put more attention into his studies.
Once he was able to ramp up his activities, the nerves started to settle in about throwing a ball again, something he almost took for granted prior to the injury.
“You just don’t know, right?” Wandler said. “You don’t want to re-hurt it by throwing or whatever, so I just tried to keep it easy, lightly getting back into long-toss, throwing it up, just stretching those muscles out and getting them working again with that similar motion.”
Jason Wandler admits it was tough watching his son battle through the injury.
He’s not just Dax’s father, but he’s also the president of the Bombers.
“He had worked so hard to get to that point and we thought the injury was going to be a minor setback,” the elder Wandler said.
He, too, remembers the realization that an MRI would be needed and surgery was a likely outcome. But as it turned out, he says the pandemic came as a bit of a blessing in disguise as it gave Dax the time to work through the injury, both physically and mentally.
The younger Wandler is grateful to both of his parents, who he leaned on as he bounced back.
“My dad was pretty helpful with workouts and whatnot, while my mom was helping with the school and life stuff,” he said. “Both my parents were really helpful for me.”
INSPIRING FUTURE BOMBERS
It probably comes as no surprise that the pride was bursting from Papa Wandler when his club took to the field on Father’s Day.
Not only did his team outlast the Lethbridge Bulls 9-8, but his son was able to take the microphone during the pre-game ceremonies to honour the dads in attendance.
His son has become an inspiration to him as well as the young athletes in Brooks who come to the ballpark.
“He’s always been an ambassador of the game,” Jason said. “Even when he was in grade eight and playing high school ball, he would help run camps and was always willing to help the younger players.”
He hopes that his son will continue to play the game as he works towards his degree, but he’s also reminded of a quote from the movie, Moneyball.
“We’re all told at some point in time that we can no long play the children’s game, we just don’t…don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at eighteen, some of us are told at forty, but we’re all told.”
Dax has gone against the odds on numerous occasions, and feels this is no different.
He will keep fighting to keep playing the game he loves while showing kids in his hometown that they can grow up to play for the Bombers someday, too.
“Get that extra work in, find the right people and get your inspiration,” he said of the advice he has for them. “Don’t give up, and whatever adversity comes your way, throw it to the side.”
Wandler has undoubtedly done that in what has been a challenging return to the diamond.