Canzano: Mark Appel -- big leaguer -- has a beautiful ring to it
A journey of faith, resilience and perseverance.
A few years ago, my wife and I played some new-fangled card game called “Exploding Kittens” with a few other couples. My buddy, Andrew Martin and his wife, Jodie, were among the group. We had a blast. A couple of days later, Andrew called and asked if he might borrow the game.
This is how I met Mark Appel.
The former No. 1 overall Major League Baseball Draft pick showed up on my doorstep to pick up the game. Appel was on a hiatus from professional baseball at the time. He’d been labeled the “biggest bust in MLB history.” The former Stanford star pitcher was out of baseball and visiting his friend.
I asked Andrew later, “Hold up. That was THE Mark Appel, right?”
Turns out, it was.
Same Appel who was drafted by the Astros with the top pick in 2013. Same guy who was awarded a $6.35 million signing bonus. Same guy who went to Single-A Lancaster, Calif. and posted an abysmal 9.74 ERA in his first 44 innings.
“We’re changing your grip,” the Astros said.
“We’re altering your release point,” they offered.
None of it seemed to help. Appel didn’t just struggle to get hitters out, he was having trouble throwing strikes. Nothing came easy. The frustration culminated in a well-publicized club-house outburst after lasting less than two innings in a start. Appel sat alone after being removed from the game, then picked up a baseball out of frustration and hurled it through a particle-board panel across the room.
It felt so good Appel picked up another ball and did it again. Over and over, he threw 80 baseballs as hard as he could through the locker-room panel. A teammate who was using a bathroom stall later laughed about sitting in silence, listening to the wreckage, afraid to interrupt.
Appel was fined by the team. He insisted on going to Home Depot the next day and repairing the damage to the locker room himself.
The next couple of years weren’t any easier on the field. Appel continued to struggle with health, velocity and control. With his confidence shot, and his shoulder inflamed, the Astros finally gave up on him. Appel was traded to the Phillies in 2015 as part of a seven-player trade. He told me earlier this year, “Looking back, I think the Astros tried to do what was best.”
Appel’s pitching shoulder bothered him after the trade. While he was rehabilitating the shoulder, he hurt his elbow. He was 5-4 with a 5.14 ERA when he decided to have a season-ending surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow. Then, the following season, Appel’s shoulder joint flared up again.
“When a lot of your confidence is based on performance and you struggle in your performance, you start to realize, ‘What do I have left to be confident in? I don’t think I’m throwing as hard, my command isn’t good, I’m giving up more hits and walking guys.’” he said. “It was tough to figure out what was going on. I couldn’t even pinpoint what was going on.”
Appel, who has deep faith in God, sat alone in a hotel room in Florida and wondered, “Is baseball what I’m supposed to do?”
He quit at age 26.
Mark Appel’s baseball journey takes a twist.
My friend Andrew worked as youth pastor at a Bay Area church before he moved to Oregon. He also served as an AAU basketball coach. Appel was just a high school kid at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif. when Andrew first met him.
Appel played baseball and basketball at the time. In fact, he and NFL tight end Zach Ertz played on the same high school basketball team and fell three points shy of winning the Northern California title. The Ertz connection is a fact Appel routinely trots out when he plays “Two Truths and a Lie” with teammates on long road trips.
After high school, Appel was offered a scholarship to Stanford, where he became the most dominant starting college pitcher in the country. In his final season, he struck out 130 batters in 106 innings and posted a 2.12 ERA.
Then, came Appel’s nightmare professional experience. One that injured him and frustrated him, but not one that broke his spirit.
“You can’t help but root for him,” Andrew said. “Even in the midst of all the struggles, the injuries, the frustration, he always had such a good perspective and attitude.”
What defines a person?
That’s a question Mark Appel wrestled with as he left the game he loved. The answer wasn’t baseball. It was his faith. Appel spent time visiting his old friend in Oregon, who now had two young children that called him “Uncle Mark” when they greeted him. He mentored young athletes at West Linn High and worked out with the baseball team, staying in shape.
“He came every year and visited in the off season,” Andrew said. “Sometimes he was rehabbing, sometimes he was just hanging out, we would go fishing on the Deschutes. He’s a big foodie and loves the Portland restaurant scene.”
Last year, Appel — now age 30 — confided to Andrew that he was going to make a comeback after four years out of baseball. The Phillies still held his rights. Appel went to social media to make the announcement and, last September, he shared a social-media post featuring the hard-earned lessons he’s learned along the way.
I spoke with Appel four months ago, just before the start of spring training. We talked about his journey and life in the minor leagues. Baseball was facing a labor stoppage. Nobody knew if there would even be a baseball season, let alone a spring training. But Appel sounded focused and said he was in shape. He was eventually assigned to the Phillies’ Triple-A club, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs of the International League.
“I’m not sure what the Phillies are hoping and expecting,” he told me. “I’m excited. My hope, as it is every year, is to have an opportunity to get out and perform. I’ve been working hard to put myself in the best place I can be and eventually make it to the big leagues.
“I think that’s everyone’s goal — make it to the big leagues and then try to stick.”
A text message changed everything.
Andrew Martin had plans in the coming weeks to fly to Charlotte, N.C. to see Mark Appel pitch a road game in Triple-A. Andrew has been closely following the minor league season, where Appel has performed especially well. The pitcher posted a 5-0 record with 1.61 ERA as a reliever to start the season.
Then, came a text message from Appel on Friday night: “Might need to cancel the Charlotte plans.”
Mark Appel got called up.
The Phillies promoted him to the Major Leagues. He’d join them on the road in San Diego. Saturday was Appel’s first day in the big leagues.
“I've been glued to the minor league box scores and holding my breath for him, and I freaked out when he texted Friday night,” Andrew said. “… we’re all just so proud, and happy for him.”
Appel flew Saturday morning from Newark, N.J. through San Francisco to San Diego. He arrived at Petco Park and signed his first major league contract just after 4 p.m. An hour later, he walked onto the field, suited up, and wearing No. 22. His family was in the crowd. But so was his former youth pastor.
I asked Andrew, who lives in Arizona now, how long it took him to book a flight to San Diego after he learned Appel was going to be in a big-league uniform against the Padres.
“Within minutes of the text,” he said.
Jodie and their kids celebrated the news, too.
Nobody can be sure what will happen to Mark Appel this season or how long the Phillies might need him in the bullpen. But there is one certainty — he’s a big leaguer.
It took him nine years. He had multiple surgeries, got traded, ridiculed and watched from a distance as a bunch of his former teammates won a World Series with the Astros. He questioned his relationship with baseball but never lost faith, even as he couldn’t effectively do something that came so natural to him as a kid — throw a baseball.
When I spoke with Appel on the phone four months ago, he was having fun with the comeback. He sounded relaxed, refreshed and ready for whatever might come. His story is one of faith, resilience and perseverance. Before we hung up, I told him there were a pile of people, including that pastor of his, dying to see him in the big leagues.
Appel said, “I’m dying for that, too. It’s been a journey. It’s been fun. It’s been hard. But I think that’s what makes it worth doing.”
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