Cardinals’ pitching prospect Daniel Poncedeleon has spent his time since he was injured in May with his girlfriend, Jennifer Beatty, and their eight-month-old son,Casen.
By Rob Rains
NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. – Daniel Poncedeleon’s baseball gear sits in a pile next to a wall on the concrete floor in the garage of his house in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. It has not been touched since he returned home on May 31, 22 days after he was hit in the head by a line drive while pitching for the Cardinals’ top minor-league affiliate.
The equipment won’t be there much longer. Poncedeleon is about to need it again.
Three months to the day after he was injured in the Memphis Redbirds’ game in Des Moines, Iowa, Poncedeleon received the final medical clearance he needed on Wednesday to be allowed to resume baseball activities. He is not certain what the next step will be, but he expects to soon make the drive south on Interstate 95 to the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, Fla., to meet with team officials and come up with a throwing program and plan that will prepare him to get back on the mound.
“I feel great,” Poncedeleon said while sitting at his dining room table in an exclusive interview with STLSportsPage.com. “Getting back on the mound is not going to be a problem. I’m not scared to go out and pitch again. I’m ready to go play.
“I feel like I had somebody watching over me for how this happened. It could have been a lot worse. I could have come out of this with some sort of disability. I believe God had an angel watching over me and really protecting me. … The most scary part was because you are dealing with your brain, and your brain is your life.”
“A really bad moment”
The 25-year-old Poncedeleon came into his start on May 9 with a 2-0 record and in six Triple A starts had posted a 2.25 ERA. He threw a scoreless first inning against the Iowa Cubs, striking out soon-to-be major-leaguer Ian Happ to end the inning.
Poncedeleon took the mound to start the second inning, and then his world suddenly changed.
“I remember making the pitch,” he said. “It was a two-seam fastball away, and I threw it right where I wanted. You want to start it right down the middle so it will move to the corner, but it just went straight. I remember seeing it come off the bat.”
The line drive by the Cubs’ Victor Caratini, batting left-handed, came straight toward Poncedeleon, hitting him on his right temple.
“They said I was knocked out for maybe 10 seconds or so,” Poncedeleon said. “I remember lying there, and my legs were tingling like they were asleep. I was like, ‘Oh man, I just got hit in the head.’ The trainer was asking me questions and I said, ‘Let me get up and walk to the clubhouse.’ I thought I probably had a concussion. He told me I was going to the hospital in an ambulance.”
As Poncedeleon’s teammates, and Caratini, gathered around the mound, silence fell over Principal Park. Because it was a weekday day game, hundreds of children were in the stands enjoying school field trips.
“The sound off the bat wasn’t good and I saw him drop,” said shortstop Paul DeJong. “It was a really bad moment. My heart sank honestly. I just wanted to make sure he was OK. In that instant it was hard to tell. It all happened so fast.”
Steve Selby was broadcasting the game on radio back to Memphis. A veteran of 32 years calling minor-league games, he had the difficult task of trying to describe what was happening on the field.
“It was a shock,” Selby said. “What struck me the most was the ball dropped straight at his feet, which means he didn’t get a turn or an angle on it. He got hit square. Once they loaded him on the cart and he gave the thumbs up and wave, you were thinking, ‘OK maybe it’s a concussion or a skull fracture,’ but he seemed to be alert and moving. The crowd was very quiet. Since we didn’t really know anything we didn’t want to speculate or talk too much about it. I had no idea how serious it actually was.”
Players on the Cubs were just as concerned as Poncedeleon’s teammates.
“I don’t know what the exit velocity was, but it was really smoked,” said Happ, watching from the dugout. “Everything that kid (Caratini) hit was hard. It caught him (Poncedeleon) right in the side of the head. It was a scary moment for everybody.”
One of the people trying to figure out what had happened was Jennifer Beatty, Poncedeleon’s girlfriend and the mother of their son, Casen, five months old at the time. She was watching the game online with her dad.
“I couldn’t tell where he got hit at first until they did a slow replay,” she said. “Even the announcers didn’t know. I panicked, and kept telling myself it probably was just a concussion. I didn’t understand how severe things can get with something like that.”
Beatty received a text message from the wife of another player who was at the game. She gave her the cell phone number for the Memphis trainer, Scott Ensell, and said he was going with Poncedeleon to the hospital.
As soon as Ensell called Poncedeleon’s father, Ramon, to update him on what had happened, he called Beatty.
“I had a trip planned to go to Memphis later that week and I asked Scott if I should change my flight or was it just a concussion,” she said. “He said, ‘I think we need to focus on him making it through surgery.’ Then I knew it was really serious.”
Poncedeleon didn’t even realize himself how seriously he had been injured.
“When I was in the ambulance I started feeling more nauseous and I thought, ‘Maybe this is a little more serious,’” he said. “When I got in the hospital I started feeling bad and threw up on all of the nurses who were pushing the cart. I remember getting a cat-scan, I remember getting my head shaved. After that I can just remember blotches of the next three or four days.”
Poncedeleon underwent emergency brain surgery at Mercy Hopsital within hours of being hit. Both Beatty and his father arrived on flights from Florida and California that evening.
Before getting on the airplane, Ramon Poncedeleon called his son’s agent, Brian Grieper, in Florida.
“I went on Twitter and there was everything you needed to see in like a five-minute span,” Grieper said. “First of all, we wanted to make sure he was OK, forgetting about baseball, that he was going to be healthy and not have any issues. The doctors and nurses were outstanding. They had him at the highest level of care. Scott, the trainer, stayed with him the entire time he was at the hospital.”
Beatty’s primary concern also was for Poncedeleon’s health.
“Can he walk, can he talk, is he going to be him, personality-wise too, those were the questions I had,” she said. “There was a point in the hospital where we got over the hump. We started to see some progress and the doctors were confident he was going to be OK and that made us confident. We didn’t think about baseball until the day he left the hospital.”
While he was in the hospital, still in intensive care, Poncedeleon was able to get on his cell phone, and scrolling through all of his notifications of messages, he accidentally came across the video of the play. He clicked on it.
“I saw it hit me, and Victor – the guy who hit it – was standing on first and you could see he felt bad,” Poncedeleon said. “He came over to the mound and checked to see if I was alright. I felt bad for him. I wasn’t really affected by the video. I wish I had just been fast enough to get my hands up there.”
As Poncedeleon recovered in the hospital, Caratini came to visit him twice. His fiancé even made a home-cooked dinner one night.
“They brought care packages, and cupcakes,” Poncedeleon said. “They were probably the best cupcakes I’ve ever had. I have a lot of respect for him and the Cubs.”
Poncedeleon spent two and a half weeks in the hospital, then a few more days in a Des Moines hotel, doing outpatient physical therapy, before he was allowed to return home.
A special benefit of being home
Baseball players are not supposed to be home during the summer, and being back in Florida at this time of the year has been a strange experience for Poncedeleon. As he continued to recover, being able to do more and more physical activities, he knew there was one special side benefit of being injured.
He got to spend time with his son, which he never would have been able to do if he was playing.
“Seeing Casen grow has been great,” Poncedeleon said. “He kind of starting crawling when I was in the hospital and now he’s booking it everywhere. He’s a happy baby, and he’s funny. You can see his personality coming out.
“I had everyone here for me every step of the way. Jenn’s family has been here every day helping out. I’ve heard from Cardinals’ fans, Cubs’ fans … I’ve had so much help.”
Almost as soon as Poncedeleon got home, package after package started to arrive at his house. He got posters from fans wishing him well; another poster was signed by all of the Cardinals with words of encouragement.
“Some schools had groups of kids at the game and had them write me cards and sent them to me,” Poncedeleon said. “One woman who was there wrote me a letter and sent it to Memphis, and it was forwarded to me. It was all very nice and very touching. A lot of people reached out, and one of the things that has kept me busy is trying to write thank you notes to all of them.”
Poncedeleon decided to use his time recovering from the surgery to be certain the rest of his body was healthy, so he could focus on healing his head. About the only restriction from the doctors so far has been telling Poncedeleon to refrain from lifting weights for the time being.
“Other than that, I’ve done everything,” he said. “I’ve swam, hit golf balls at the driving range, I can run and ride a bike and then I come home and do chores. It definitely was a major point in my life, but I’ve felt fine most of the time. I never felt depressed or sad.”
Watching the Cardinals games on television, Poncedeleon often will have a baseball in his right hand, playing with various grips.
“I’m dying to throw a curve ball,” he said.
He has thrown a tennis ball against a wall, and thrown it so his dog Molly, a Schnauzer/Jack Russell mix, can chase and retrieve it. He likely would have been throwing a baseball by now except for the fact that, “I don’t have a throwing partner,” he said.
Seeing the success of his friends, including DeJong and Luke Voit, with the Cardinals has been exciting for Poncedeleon. At the same time, however, he thinks about the possibility that he might be in St. Louis as well now if not for the injury. Ironically, said Poncedeleon – who grew up in California – he has never been to St. Louis.
“That is one of the disappointing things,” he said. “I was feeling really good this year and hoping maybe I could go up and help the Cardinals. But I got hurt. That wasn’t the plan I guess.”
“I know I’m fine”
The upcoming off-season was going to be a critical juncture in Poncedeleon’s career even before the injury. The Cardinals will have to add him to their 40-man roster or make him eligible to be selected by other teams in December’s Rule 5 draft.
That’s one of the reasons Poncedeleon wants to get back to work as soon as possible, knowing everybody will want to watch and see what he does when he gets back on the mound. Once he begins throwing, it will take some time to build up his arm strength again like happens at the start of spring training. It’s possible he could pitch in the Cardinals’ Instructional League program in October.
“I would like to show them that I’m fine,” Poncedeleon said. “I know I’m fine. I can tell from early on to this point I just feel different. I can move again just like I did before. Whatever the Cardinals say is the plan, I’m in.
“There’s not much more I can do besides show everyone that I’m OK. I’m going to do as much as I can to show that and that I’m ready to play. Whatever happens from there is kind of out of my hands. I’ve had all of these past years to show what I can do. I have to rely on that.”
Poncedeleon has been in the Cardinals’ system since he was a ninth-round pick from Embry-Riddle University, an NAIA school in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the 2014 draft. For a variety of reasons, that was his fourth college, and the fourth time he had been drafted.
“It’s been a journey,” said Poncedeleon, who knows that his journey in many ways could just be beginning.
Said Grieper, “He’s a guy who has tunnel vision on the mound and off the mound. He’s focused. A lot of guys don’t necessarily have that kind of focus. Talking to his dad while he was still in the hospital, we were concerned about his health but at some point we both came to the same realization that he was coming back on the field. It’s a matter of when. His drive and determination, to where he is now, it’s a tremendous story.
“When I talk to other players about determination I always use him as an example. He is so determined and focused about getting to the next level and being very good at that level and staying there for years. I’ve represented a lot of guys over the years and they don’t all have that mentality.”
Poncedeleon knows why he has that attitude.
“I want to be able to provide for my family and my son the way my dad provided for me,” he said. “My dad’s given me everything. I’d like to do the same for my son. That’s what’s really pushing me. This is just a setback. I’m going to go out there and pitch.
“The way I play the game there isn’t much more than you can care. I love the game, I love pitching. My favorite thing is striking guys out. I play the game with as much energy and focus as I can have.”
There is something, however, that Poncedeleon wants to do differently when he gets back on the mound.
“I’ve been getting hit a lot the last couple of years,” he said. “In spring training Pablo Sandoval hit a liner off my butt. The year before in Springfield I took a one-hopper off my chest. I’ve got to stop throwing the ball right down the middle.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains