By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Everything that has happened in his life the last 18 months has given Aaron Brooks a new perspective on baseball.
He arrives daily at the Cardinals’ spring training complex and reports to the minor-league clubhouse. Having signed a minor-league deal in January, with a non-roster invitation to the major-league camp, the lockout has re-directed Brooks’ path to earning a spot on the team’s pitching staff.
Considering how his life has changed since September 2020, having to go through a different door and using a smaller clubhouse isn’t a tough adjustment for the 31-year-old Brooks.
The change in his perspective began with a phone call.
“Night and day,” he said. “Baseball is second. Baseball has rarely been second for me my whole life.”
“I could hear sirens”
Brooks was alone in his apartment in Gwangju, South Korea on the morning of Sept. 21, 2020. He was nearing the end of his first season with the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization, having signed after stops with the Royals, Athletics and Orioles in the major leagues and more time with a handful of minor-league teams spread across five organizations since being drafted by the Royals in 2011.
His wife Whitney, whom he met in 2014 while pitching in Omaha, and the couple’s two young children had returned a few weeks earlier to the family’s home in Manhattan, Kan., after spending most of the season in Korea.
It was about 7 a.m. when Brooks’ phone rang half a world away. Whitney was on the other end.
“I could hear sirens in the background,” Brooks recalled. “I had no idea what was going on. She was crying, but trying to hold it together.”
The family had been involved in a serious car accident in Washington County, Kansas, while heading to visit Whitney’s family in Nebraska.
An F-250 pickup truck had failed to stop at a four-way stop at the intersection of two two-lane highways. Whitney, driving a GMC Yukon, had stopped and was beginning to turn onto the other road when the truck slammed into the driver’s side of their vehicle at a speed later determined to be about 65 miles per hour.
The rear door took the brunt of the collision, inches away from where 2 ½ year-old Westin was sitting in his car seat.
Brooks would learn later that his son had suffered severe injuries to the left side of his face, including the loss of his left eye.
“Basically the whole left side of his face was fractured,” Brooks said. “Whatever hit him hit right by his nose and eye. It destroyed his whole eye.”
Brooks immediately tried to find out how quickly he could get from Gwangju, about 4 ½ hours from Seoul, to Kansas City, where his son was being air-lifted to Children’s Mercy Hospital.
“I wasn’t able to get on a flight to come home until that night,” he said. “I remember just laying in my son’s bed. Honestly it was the only thing I could do. I didn’t know what else to do.
“We’re Christians, and I was just hoping and praying that he was going to be OK. It was looking pretty bad there for a while.”
About 31 hours after getting that phone call, Brooks’ father-in-law picked him up at the Kansas City airport and drove him to the hospital to join his wife and children. Neither Whitney or his daughter Monroe, nine months old at the time, had been seriously injured.
Brooks learned more about what happened immediately after the accident, what he now considers to be a case of divine intervention – or the situation could have been much worse.
“As soon as my wife could get to the back seat, there were already two or three people there,” he said. “They worked at the local hospital and were on their way home. One or two of them saw it (the accident) happen, and the other just drove up on it. There are times when you might not see a car at that location for two or three minutes.
“There were some stars aligned. They have one ambulance and it was out on a call, but they didn’t need it and it was on its way back to the hospital and was able to get to my family.
“If you would have told me that night that he would lose his eye and would be OK, we all would have taken it because of how severe the accident was for him. My son was unrecognizable. The doctors did a great job, He is still going through surgeries and dealing with everything daily that comes with losing an eye but thankfully nobody died.
“It definitely changed my wife and I as parents with everything that goes into being a parent, and how quickly that can be taken from you. I don’t want to take anything for granted anymore. I definitely know it has made us stronger as parents, as husband and wife, as spiritual followers, in a lot of ways … it kind of made me mature a lot more than I had before that all happened.”
While Westin was recovering, Brooks and his family went back to Korea for the 2021 season. His wife and kids returned to Kansas in the summer in advance of the next scheduled surgery, and Brooks found himself suffering from anxiety, another side effect of being away from his family after the accident. He was having trouble sleeping.
He didn’t want to take a pill, so Brooks found a vape pen online, and ordered it. This time, the bad news came after a knock on his apartment door instead of in a phone call.
“I made a poor decision”
Brooks answered the knock on his door on Aug. 9, 2021 and was handed a package, his online order. What he found out when there was a second knock on his door a few minutes later was that the pen contained traces of marijuana, which is illegal in any form in South Korea.
The contents of the package had been discovered by Korean customs agents, who needed to see Brooks in possession of the package – which is why it was hand-delivered instead of simply left in his mailbox.
“A few people were standing there and they (the customs agents) said there was something illegal in the package,” Brooks said. “I literally didn’t know what was going on.”
The agents opened the package and described the situation to Brooks.
“They took it (the pen) out and said it contained marijuana,” Brooks said. “They stressed how bad it is looked upon in their country, and I respect that. It went on from there.”
That was the beginning of six months of legal proceedings that literally kept Brooks stuck in South Korea until January.
“I didn’t know it had that,” Brooks said. “I was just trying to find something that would help me. It was a poor decision; I was just trying to get some sleep at night.”
Brooks informed the Tigers of what had happened. “I didn’t want them to look bad,” he said. “I asked them what they wanted to do. They said there was a way I could voluntarily retire from the KBO for a year, so on my own I agreed to do that.”
The retirement did not stop Brooks’ legal issues, however. Even though he was never charged or arrested, he was prevented from leaving South Korea while an investigation continued, which ended up taking months.
“I didn’t think it would take that long,” Brooks said. “I missed my daughter’s birthday. I missed Halloween and Thanksgiving … When it first happened baseball was still going on, but after the season ended I just was stuck playing video games and passing the time the best I could. It was a sticky situation and pretty alone time for a few months.
“When it got to December, I didn’t want to miss my son’s fourth birthday (on Christmas Eve) or Christmas so I told my family, ‘You guys need to come back. I can’t keep sitting here in this apartment by myself.’”
Finally in January Brooks was informed that he could leave the country and his passport was unblocked.
“Basically I was deported,” Brooks said. “They just told me it was illegal there, and if I was a Korean citizen I would be in a lot more trouble, possibly even have to go to jail. Basically I was put on probation. If I was caught in Korea doing anything else, even if it was running a stop sign, I could still get punished for what they let me go for.”
With his legal issue resolved, and with his son continuing to recover, it was time for Brooks to think about baseball again.
“I have a reason to play”
When Brooks was home after the 2020 season, he found out the Cardinals had interest in signing him but his family decided it would be best for him to go back and play a second season in Korea.
His performance in 2021 did not change the Cardinals’ interest and after doing Zoom interviews with them and a couple of other teams while still in Korea, Brooks decided to sign – agreeing to a non-roster contract since the lockout prevented him from signing a straight major-league deal.
“It just felt like the guys over here had something that I was looking for as far as a fit, with the philosophy over here,” Brooks said. “I throw strikes, I keep the ball down. We have a great defense, just let them do their thing.”
Aside from how Brooks matured as a person through everything that happened while he was in Korea, he also believes he developed more as a pitcher during his time there.
“It was big for me to understand that I can trust myself regardless of who’s hitting,” Brooks said. “Previously when I first got called up I think I was more star-struck in a way, facing guys I had watched my whole life. I got kind of wrapped up in that instead of trying to dominate them.
“There’s a little less power in Korea but they (hitters) will make you work. They have a good eye and will foul pitches off. I didn’t know who the big home run guys were. I knew they were hitting third or fourth, but I didn’t know them personally so it kind of allowed me to attack them and to trust my stuff and say, ‘Here you go, hit it’ versus thinking about who the guys were I was facing in the big leagues instead of just thinking about my job.”
What attracted the Cardinals’ to Brooks was that in his two seasons in Korea, Brooks walked only 40 of the 919 hitter he faced and had a 78 percent ground ball rate, surrendering only eight home runs. The team also knew it had found success with recent signings of pitchers from Japan and Korea such as Miles Mikolas, Kwang Hyun Kim and Seung hwan Oh. They thought Brooks might become the latest pitcher they could add to that list.
Mentally, Brooks believes he benefitted from his Korean experience by not having to worry that if he had one bad game, he might be going back to the minors.
“Getting the ball every five days, regardless of what happened, kept me from having to worry about anything else,” Brooks said. “Going to Korea helped me realize I don’t need to worry about who’s hitting. I just need to worry about my job and what I can do and the rest will take care of itself.”
That’s basically the same attitude Brooks has adopted about the lockout that has forced him into the minor-league camp instead of working with the major leaguers. He is in somewhat of a awkward spot, considering he has been a member of the player’s union before, hopes to be again soon, but isn’t a member now.
He is trying to take advantage of the fact he still has a chance to pitch and show the Cardinals why he deserves a spot on the roster when the lockout finally does end.
“I think there is an opportunity for me here,” Brooks said. “Normally I am a starter but I can be a reliever.
“Everything that has happened has kind of re-lit a fire in me. I know I have a reason to play and that I belong here.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Orioles photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports; other photos courtesy of Aaron Brooks