When your labrum works properly you are able to:
▪ do the YMCA dance.
▪ place things in overhead compartments.
▪ point to distant landmarks.
And some lucky people can even throw a baseball 96 miles per hour. Once one of those lucky few, Winthrop’s Matt Crohan may never throw a ball that hard again.
“That’s the sad part. He had everything going his way, a lot of excitement,” said Winthrop baseball coach Tom Riginos. “Sometimes life throws you a curveball.”
Looking at Crohan’s future in 2016 required sunglasses.
The burly 6-foot-4, 220-pound left-handed pitcher went 7-4 with a 3.05 ERA as a sophomore in 2015. He struck out 87 batters and walked just 29, his best outing a 3-0 shutout of Coastal Carolina in which he fanned 12 batters in eight innings. Opponents hit just .220 off the Long Island lefty and plenty of Major League Baseball scouts noticed.
Crohan joined the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team that summer as one of just 24 players invited to compete in a tour against several foreign countries. Prior to the 2016 season, D1Baseball.com and Baseball America listed him as a top-40 prospect for the 2016 MLB Draft. On the back of that momentum, Crohan was named the Big South’s 2016 preseason pitcher of the year.
But in the opening inning of his third start, he threw a slider and heard the pop that sends shivers spidering down a baseball player’s back. He threw five more innings, but his velocity dropped each frame. Crohan called his catcher, Roger Gonzalez, out to the mound in the sixth inning.
“I can’t throw another slider,” Crohan told Gonzalez, “it hurts too much.”
He continued to throw through the pain for a few more weeks, but the discomfort grew to the point that Crohan’s arm would go into shock and lock up. He shut the door on the 2016 season.
The reality of everything
Crohan consulted five doctors and received split opinions from the first four. The injury happened on March 4 and Crohan tried rehab until June. The fifth doctor suggested surgery and Crohan had his operation on July 5.
“I completely destroyed my shoulder,” he said.
The labrum surrounds the shoulder socket and helps keep the ball of the joint in place. Crohan suffered two lesions in his labrum, one called a Bankart tear, at the bottom, and one near the top, called a slap tear. Oh, and he split his bicep tendon in half.
As an almost cruel joke, Crohan was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 32nd round of the 2016 MLB Draft. He was the 948th player chosen. Thirty-three of that year’s 34 first round picks received signing bonuses of at least $2 million. Crohan decided to stay at Winthrop.
The labrum repair in a New York hospital lasted close to an hour.
Three anchors reattached Crohan’s bicep to his shoulder -- the surgeon pulled the bicep taut and connected it to a new spot on the shoulder -- and repaired both tears.
Back home following the surgery, Crohan’s mom, Stephanie, peeled back his bandages.
“I knew it was never gonna be the same again. Or potentially never the same again,” he said. “I was still out of it from all the drugs you get, but just to see it for the first time and realize, ‘this actually happened,’ a wave came over and just hit me.”
He asked his mom to leave the bathroom, then cried alone.
In the kitchen, Stephanie cried too.
“As a parent, there was nothing you could for him,” she said Friday. “I think the reality of everything hit him right then.”
Stephanie told her son it was okay to cry, but that was the only time in the last two years that he did so.
“I’d worked my whole life to pitch and ultimately try and pursue my dream of playing professional baseball, and I felt I’d gotten so close and just had it ripped away,” said Crohan. “So, I just wanted to get back to playing again.”
At a Long Island physical therapy facility surrounded by senior citizens, Crohan rebuilt his shoulder strength from nothing.
“There was an older lady next to me doing three pounds,” he said. “And I’m over here doing nothing, or having a pink one-pound weight in my hand. And she’s just cruising through.”
Trying to let it loose
Any thoughts of returning in 2017 quickly disintegrated. Big South coaches, unaware of Crohan’s shoulder health, again voted him the league’s preseason pitcher of the year. But he never arrived where he wanted to physically or mentally, and ultimately redshirted.
Labrum recoveries are inconsistent in Riginos’ experience. Crohan said he knew of two Major Leaguers that fully recovered from the operation. Riginos and Crohan agreed that recovery from Tommy John elbow surgery tends to be more successful.
Mental recovery has been as difficult for Crohan as the physical rehab. The fear lodged in Crohan’s mind is simple: can he fire a fastball toward the catcher as hard as possible without his shoulder popping out and his arm lurching painfully forward in the socket?
“Range of motion is there. I think the arm strength is there,” Crohan said. “I’m gonna just try and keep working and see what happens.”
Here’s a big step for Crohan: he’s trying -- trying -- to let his arm loose like he used to.
“I’m not as scared to want to stay through it,” he said. “There is still pain, but it’s not like it was when I tore it. I feel like I can do it, but some of the guys on the team have said the intent is not the same yet when I’m out on the mound. I don’t feel like (that), but apparently it might look like it.”
A new Matt Crohan
It begs the question: what’s next?
“I’m not really sure right now,” Crohan said, sighing. “I just want to get in a game. Whatever role I have, I just want to be helpful.”
There is little talk about Crohan’s future beyond May, because acknowledging future alternatives to baseball feels like giving up on the sport. Winthrop pitching coach Clint Chrysler tries to steer his player away from worrying about the future.
“We try the best we can to stay in the day-by-day,” Chrysler said. “I think that’s the best thing for him, the small steps forward. He knows he’s not gonna walk out here one day and be throwing 95. He’s gonna have to continue to climb and continue to work and he’s doing that.
“To Matt’s credit, he’s the first one here every day, he’s the last one to leave. He’s working as hard as he can to get back. I really believe that whatever his body will allow him to do physically, he’s gonna get there.”
For now, Crohan is a different pitcher than he was two years ago. If he is to succeed in his present reality, he’ll have to become the stereotypical crafty left-hander that leans on guile instead of power. Riginos said “it was almost emotional” to see Crohan pitch in a recent inter-squad scrimmage.
“He’s not the left-hander that throws 96 anymore,” said Riginos. “It’s a new Matt Crohan. For me, it’s going to be exciting to see his first official innings on the mound.”
Just enjoying it
If life had gone to plan, Crohan would be getting ready for his third year of professional baseball, possibly in the upper reaches of the minor leagues, or who knows, maybe even competing for a big league roster spot.
The wistful look on Crohan’s face as he sits in the Winthrop Ballpark dugout is enough to tell you that’s not how it worked out.
“In the blink of an eye, he went from the top of the world, being in the penthouse,” said Stephanie. “And now he’s not.”
But Crohan has persevered. Other than the bathroom breakdown, he’s shown the stoic strength that’s made him a leader and role model in the Winthrop program. And his time away from competitive baseball has given him perspective he might never have gained if he was still racing down the MLB fast track.
“I should have taken it in a little more when I was playing,” he said. “It could never come back. I could never be the same. But it’s helped me with pretty much everything in life. Helping me develop life skills and succeed moving forward, no matter what I do.”
With Major League dreams shelved for two years, Crohan graduated from college and is working on a graduate degree. He’s focused on school like never before. Laser-focused on the big leagues, Crohan had never considered graduating from college. But facing an unclear future, he’s thankful to have a degree, and he’s thankful to still play the game he loves, even if it’s just for one final season.
“I’m still able to throw, nobody’s kicked me off a baseball field yet,” Crohan said. “So I’m just enjoying it.”