By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – After missing the last two seasons because of his military commitment, Ben Yokley had a different plan in mind when he returned to the Cardinals’ organization at the start of the minor league spring training camp this week.
He got on the field twice before leaving Florida on Sunday to fly to St. Louis, where he will undergo surgery on his right hip on Monday. Yokley, a right-handed pitcher, will miss his third consecutive season while recovering and rehabbing from the operation.
“It wasn’t exactly the story I was planning on,” Yokley said.
Yokley, a right-handed pitcher, was selected by the Cardinals in the 29th round of the 2015 draft out of the Air Force Academy even though they knew he – like former Cardinal and Naval Academy grad Mitch Harris – had a five-year active duty commitment following his graduation.
Yokley was able to pitch in seven games in Johnson City that summer before beginning his first military assignment. He was a month into pilot training when Yokley was faced with a decision which he knew would affect his baseball future.
The full Air Force pilot training program lasts two years, with another 10 year service commitment after the training.
“If I had started that training it would have been very difficult to be pulled out of it,” Yokley said, feeling the tug of not getting to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball. “With the pilot shortage the Air Force has there was almost no way I would have gotten the chance to come back to play baseball.”
So Yokley requested to be reclassified and was approved, literally two days before he would have had to begin the full-scale pilot training program. He did complete about 25 to 30 hours of pilot training, so he needs about 20 more hours to obtain a private pilot’s license, something he said he will consider in the future.
It was during his preparation for the new assignment, to be trained as a flight medic, that Yokley found out more about the problem with his right hip.
“It was something that bugging me a little bit my senior year at the Academy and while I was playing at Johnson City but it wasn’t bad enough that it prevented me from playing or anything like that,” Yokley said. “I found out in November of 2016 when they did an MRI that I had a partial tear of the labrum. Because I wasn’t pitching I learned how to avoid some of the movements that made it flare up.”
After completing two years of his military commitment, Yokley applied for a program that let him exchange his remaining active duty commitment by doubling his reserve requirement. So in February, Yokley, a First Lieutenant, joined the Colorado Air National Guard, where he has five years of service remaining, and beg n ramping up his workouts in preparation of his return to baseball.
He arrived in Florida last week and during his routine physical, mentioned his past hip problem to the training staff. Following another MRI and X-rays, he was told he a had a complete tear of the labrum.
“They said if I didn’t get it fixed now it was going to turn into a full hip replacement and I would have some long-term health issues,” Yokley said.
“There is kind of a silver lining to it in that I get to take care of it now and not waste time rehabbing and getting to 100 percent and then have to get it taken care of and miss time again. I was only throwing and working on baseball specific movements for a month to a month and a half. I was going to have to build up my arm strength slowly, but now I get to build it up while I am rehabbing my hip too. I will be able to get back stronger than I was before.”
Monday’s surgery will be an outpatient procedure, and after a couple of days of checkups, Yokley plans to fly home to Denver and then come back to Jupiter in late April to begin the four to six-month rehab program.
Even with missing this year, Yokley, now 25, figures he is still closer to getting back to playing baseball then he had planned when he left Johnson City in 2015.
“I was expecting to be gone five years, and now I’m back after 2 1/2, so I kind of have a 2 ½ year head start,” he said.
What Yokley found during the 2 ½ years he was away from the game was how much he missed it, so much so that it was hard for him to watch games on television.
“I missed it in a different way than I expected,” Yokley said, “It really came down to the emotion of it, the transition of not having a way to compete or get my frustration or passion out and express myself playing. I kind of found out I was going through mood swings I wasn’t used to and it was like, ‘How do I handle this if I don’t have a way to get it all out?’ I was not competing against a group of guys but I found a way to compete on my own that didn’t quite parallel it but I tried.
“I couldn’t really watch baseball. If I turned on MLB Tonight I would just get frustrated with myself and have to turn it off. I knew I couldn’t be working toward that still so I tried to stay away from it.”
Now Yokley is going to have to miss the game for another season, but for an entirely different reason.
“I found out in November it was going to be a possibility of coming back now so I started doing some throwing to see if there was still gas in the tank or not,” he said. “I worked with a personal trainer in Denver, trying to get as much done as I could.
“I was proud of all the work I put in to get stronger and now I’m kind of frustrated that all of that is about to go down the drain because I will be rehabbing for so long. But at the same time it’s something I need to get fixed at the beginning of my career rather than have it end my career.”
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