Sports

On the warning track

Rock Hill American Legion Post 34 pitcher Josh Salay has fought to get to where he is today.
Rock Hill American Legion Post 34 pitcher Josh Salay has fought to get to where he is today.

Baseball is about second chances. There's no other sport where you can mess up seven out of every 10 times and still be considered a superstar.

Josh Salay realizes he's on his second chance. Anything can happen, but his main goal is to not let the second chance turn out like the first.

Salay, a standout pitcher at Rock Hill High School, accepted a scholarship offer to pitch for Winthrop last year. He traveled with the Eagles on a Thanksgiving trip to the Dominican Republic, preparing to be an option for a team seeking pitching stability.

Scarcely five months later, Salay is out of Winthrop, pitching for Rock Hill's American Legion team and about to enroll at Spartanburg Methodist Junior College in the fall. The talent in Salay's right arm has slightly improved.

His maturity has skyrocketed.

"I feel more mature. I feel more ready for it," Salay said. "I know it's there already because I've been there."

Salay readily admits he quit Winthrop, that he wasn't kicked out, and he holds no ill will or grudges against coach Joe Hudak or any of his former teammates. The journey he's taken in such a short time leaves no room for re-living the past, good or bad.

Because the future is Salay's business. He's as good as he's ever been, no-hitting Fort Mill in his first appearance for Post 34 and striking out 18 against Newberry in another of his recent starts. His fastball, clocked in the low 90s, is searing once again and the added muscle and stamina he's worked on since leaving the Eagles has supplied his curve and changeup with extra movement.

Spartanburg Methodist, a baseball factory that has sent several players to Division I programs or the major leagues, noticed and signed him up. The second chance is glowing in front of Salay's eyes.

No more what-might-have-beens.

"My main goal is to play professional baseball," Salay said. "It's all worked out now."

Salay came through the fall session at Winthrop in good shape, pitching during the Eagles' trip to the Dominican and earning a C average in the classroom. Entering the spring session, a month or so before Winthrop's scheduled opener at UCLA, is when it happened.

Salay was battling a cranky back and an old foe -- clinical depression. Salay has fought depression since he was 12 and his experience with the Eagles wasn't turning out like he'd hoped.

"Everything was good for a while and it picked up again, about this year," he said. "I thought it was going to be a good decision, just because you're going to be at home, be real close to the family.

"As the year went on, I didn't enjoy being at home."

The arguments with the coaching staff and the increasing pressure led to the inevitable. Salay walked out.

"At Winthrop, I think at first when they made the offer, he was excited to be able to stay close to home," said Salay's mother, Teresa. "But he didn't seem to be satisfied."

"You've got to understand, he's just 18 years of age," said Eddie Hill, Salay's coach at Rock Hill. "He just turned 18 this past September. He's not sure about different things."

A pitcher without a team, Salay began to hear the whispers and see the disappointed faces, all talking about another can't-miss phenom who missed. The depression became much harder to fight.

"After I quit, I didn't want to play anymore," Salay said. "I tried to go to school for a while, and then the depression just kept me down. I couldn't even get out of the bed some mornings because I was so down."

It was in the midst of one of those fogs that Salay thought of the game, how he only felt complete when he was out there on the mound, staring down some poor sap who had the bad sense to step in against him. After a two to three-month layoff, Salay had had enough.

"One day, I was like, 'Man, I can't sit here anymore. I have to play,'" he said, smile breaking across his face. "I finally went and talked to the doctor and got some medicine and got my mind right."

He began lifting weights at the YMCA and using some of the same pitching and running drills he'd learned at Winthrop. Sometimes practicing with his family but often by himself, Salay got himself back into shape and ready to re-claim his career.

Steve Knight, coach at Post 34, welcomed Salay back to the squad, one that had taken advantage of his right arm to finish runner-up at last year's state tournament. It wasn't the no-hitter that first let Knight know something had changed.

"From last year to this time, his maturity level has increased 100 percent," Knight said. "It used to be, he'd strike out, he'd get real upset or bothered by it. He has learned to deal with that adversity with a much more mature matter."

Salay shyly agreed, glad that others have recognized it.

"I was kind of hoping someone would notice it," Salay said. "I did have a bad attitude once in a while. I still get agitated but years before, I would throw my bat or yell or say something I shouldn't. Now I keep it in and eventually, it just goes away."

The adjustment and the physical maturity have helped immensely. Hill called Salay's arm the best he'd had in over 20 years with the Bearcats, and Knight compared him to fellow local product Ryan Hinson, a rising junior at Clemson.

"Sometimes that happens, where sometimes you just don't fit," Knight said of Salay's brief stay with the Eagles. "But the world of baseball is open to him. He's going to get a shot."

Salay has gotten it. Now it's accepting it, proving he can handle it and getting further off the sidetrack that threatened to derail his career.

No grudges, no venom. No more blaming anybody other than himself.

Just onward.

"I think this time around things will work out," Salay said. "If they don't, I have nowhere else to go.

"So I've got to make it work."

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