Tournaments | Story | 10/23/2020

The remarkable resolve of Sam Sloan

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Sam Sloan (Perfect Game)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Sunday, October 11 was another hot day in a long string of them in Southwest Florida earlier this month, but equal doses of excitement and anticipation still managed to hang heavy in the steamy air.

To begin with, it was the first day of the playoffs at the Perfect Game WWBA World Championship and many of the top teams had gathered at the Lee County Player Development 5-Plex that morning to kick-start the beginning of bracket-play. Players, coaches, families and hard-working scouts were all locked-in and ready for what was to be a long day of non-stop, high-energy bracket-play.

There was also a consolation game scheduled for mid-afternoon at the 5-Plex that day, a contest that matched the Elite Squad Houston Astros Scout Team against the US Elite 2021 National; the Richie Palmer-led Astros ST had missed the playoffs after finishing 1-1-1 in pool-play (US Elite went 0-3-0).

It’s likely that there were folks in attendance who viewed it as a nondescript consy taking place in the middle of playoff bedlam, but that view could not have been more misguided. This was a game that would mark the much anticipated return of Florida righthander Sammy Sloan months earlier than anyone could have imagined.

And Samuel Sloan was there all right, mingling with his teammates over by the 5-Plex’s batting cages a good hour before game time. His smile was wide and his enthusiasm unbridled because this place at this time was exactly where he wanted to be. Check that: This place at this time was exactly where he needed to be.

“I love the competition; I love every bit of it,” Sam told PG during an early afternoon pre-game conversation in front of the aforementioned cages. “Playing in big tournaments like this is always what I live up to and what I’m here for and what I’ve been working hard for.

“I just love the competition and I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how good you are or how bad you could technically be,” he said. “I just want to go out there and compete and go at it."

This would be the first PG event Sam performed at since he pitched at the PG National Showcase in Hoover, Ala., back on Friday, June 19. That was nearly four months earlier but it was a day that would never be forgotten by those close to Sam Sloan. One punctuated by an outing that turned out to be life-changing – and in Sam’s case, dangerously life-threatening – in a myriad of ways for many, many people.

According to several first-hand accounts, this is how the events unfolded:

Not long into his PG National performance at the Hoover Met Stadium, the batter facing Sloan drove a pitch on a hard line straight up the middle that struck the 6-foot-3, 200 pound righty squarely in the head. Outward signs originally gave no indication of the severity of the injury but it was in fact a traumatic one – a skull fracture – that ultimately left Sam Sloan fighting for his life.

Why the early confusion? Well, that was because after initially getting hit by the line drive and escorted into the dugout, Sam seemed unfazed. He was walking and talking and, in fact, insisting he should be allowed to go back out and finish the outing. Trainers on site were putting him through concussion protocol at the time and he was told emphatically that he was done throwing for the day.

As it was, Sloan, a 17½-year-old Florida commit ranked No. 286 nationally (No.103 RHP) in the 2021 class, wouldn’t get back out on a mound again to face live hitting until early October when he threw for the first time at a local event near his home in Bartow, Fla., a week before the Jupiter tournament.

He admitted to having some nerves when he went to work that day because he really didn’t know what to expect from himself when he took the mound.

“I wasn’t 100 percent sure how I was going to do, but I did fine,” he said, speaking from the 5-Plex. “(Now) I’m just ready to be out here and pitch, be live and get everything going in a good environment with everyone. It’ll be good to get back out there, show everyone what I’ve got and that I’m back and I’m healthy; that’s my biggest thing.”

Richie Palmer has been guiding the Pembroke Pines, Fla.-based Elite Squad Baseball program for well more than a decade now and he told PG that he’s coached some pretty tough kids through the years. He’s long considered Sam Sloan to be right there among them but he didn’t have any idea just how tough this kid was both physically and mentally until that accident happened.

"I think (calling Sam) courageous is an understatement,” Palmer told PG. “I knew at some point he would probably come back and I think everybody’s worst fear after you find out that he’s going to be OK is, hey, is he going to be able to pitch again? And that’s all he was thinking about the whole time. Not about ‘if’ he was going to but ‘when’ he was going to.”

… … … …

SAM SLOAN AND HIS DAD, PHILIP SLOAN, MADE THE TRIP TO HOOVER IN JUNE TOGETHER, just the two of them while Sam’s mom and Phil’s wife, Julie, minded things back home in Bartow, Fla. What follows is how the chain of events on June 19 unfolded, as recounted by both Phil and Sam Sloan.

On that day, Phil made his way to the side of the Hoover Met Stadium opposite the dugout Sam’s PG Green team would be occupying. He chose that side of the ballpark simply because it was shaded, an important consideration on what was a very hot summer day in the Birmingham metro area.

Phil was standing up on the concourse speaking with Julie on the phone while she watched the PGTV live stream of the event back home. It was right then that Sam was struck by the batted line-drive and crumpled to the ground. Phil began to react to the situation while still on the phone with his wife but because of the lengthy delay on the live stream, Julie was not witnessing it in real time

Now on the move, Phil began working his way to the other side of the field to Sam’s dugout while PG staff and trainers raced to the mound to check on Sam’s condition. By the time Phil got on the field and reached the dugout, Sam was in there as well and going through concussion protocol with the trainer.

There was no bleeding or any visible sign of injury on Sam’s head at the point of impact but Phil was advised to take his son to a nearby walk-in clinic in Hoover. Sam, not showing any outward signs of trauma, changed into shorts and father and son made their way to the car.

“We got up to the concourse and there’s a (banner) that says, ‘Home of the SEC Tournament’ and a picture showing the SEC tournament championship trophy,” Phil recalled, expressing amazement in retrospect at the obvious lack of urgency. The situation, at that moment in time anyway, simply didn’t call for it.

“Sam was like, Dad stop here and take my picture because I’m going to be back here in a couple of years hoisting up the trophy when I’m playing for the Gators.”

That initial lack of urgency began to dissipate rapidly. They were turned away at the first private clinic they stopped at but were helpfully directed to the main public hospital in Hoover a mile or so down the road. It was there where Sam was first examined.

At that time, Phil wasn’t overly concerned because his son was able to walk and talk and, in fact, Sam had begged his dad to not to take him to the hospital at all – he only wanted to go back to the hotel and lay down.

There is a story here that Phil shared that helps explain why he decided to act on the side of caution and take Sam to the hospital instead of the hotel. Samuel Sloan is named after a childhood friend of Phil’s, a kid named Sammy Small, who Phil played baseball with during his little league and high school days.

Sammy Small suffered a non-baseball related head injury when he fell out of the back of a truck some years ago. Immediately after the accident, Small was able to walk and communicate and initially resisted going to the hospital before finally relenting; a day later he died from bleeding on the brain.

“That’s who Sam’s named after and when he got this head injury it kind of hit really close to home,” Phil said. “So I wasn’t fooling around with it. I wasn’t going to take him back to the hotel like he requested. I was going to have him looked at and make sure there wasn’t anything internally that we needed to be worried about.”

Sam received a CAT Scan at the Hoover hospital and the doctors there contacted a trauma team from UAB University Hospital in nearby Birmingham where he would be transported. That was when Phil and Sam first learned that Sam had a skull fracture with bleeding on the brain.

Not at all familiar with the area, Phil at first tried to follow the ambulance to UAB but couldn’t keep up and had to try to find Sam on his own at the sprawling UAB Hospital medical complex. All the while, Julie was calling and texting in an attempt to get updates while the mad scramble continued unabetted.

He finally was able to locate the ER where Sam had been taken and Phil was starting to get his feet back on the ground. He had become increasingly concerned when the ambulance began traveling at speeds over 100 mph while transporting Sam but once he got to the hospital and met the doctors, they were able to assure him that Sam wasn’t in immediate danger.

But he was far from out of the woods and, in fact, was just entering them. Sam Sloan had suffered a serious injury and was moved into the Intensive Care Unit where he spent the next seven days; he was moved into a regular room for the last two days of his stay.

The first three or four days Sam was hospitalized in Birmingham were tense ones while Sam began his recovery, according to Phil. Sam was experiencing both bleeding and swelling of the brain and his condition wasn’t improving as rapidly as everyone was hoping for.

There were several times, Phil told PG, that he was consulted by the surgeons about different procedures being considered at the time. The family was justifiably worried because there was another, very early health scare in Sam’s life that was now weighing heavy on his parent’s minds.

Samuel Sloan was born prematurely in May 2003 and weighed-in at 2-pounds, 6-ounces on his birthday. He actually had bleeding on the brain when he was born and there was initial concern regarding the development of his brain. The odds, Phil said, of Sam leading a normal life were slim at that time, but for the first time in his young life, he pulled through with flying colors.

“He defied all those odds and is a normal person without any of those limitations,” Phil said. “Sam has always defied the odds since the day he was born; it was no different with this situation. All the things pointed to severe, lifelong complications from this but so far, so good – knock on wood.”

Sam Sloan spent nine days and nights at UAB University Hospital before being released. He continues to receive care at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, the home of his beloved Florida Gators.

“Everything went a lot better than what was originally expected,” Sam said of his hospital stay in Birmingham. “I had a lot of things that could have gone a different way and it could have been for the worst. Luckily, everything turned out to be good.”

“We really just put our faith in those (doctors),” his dad added. “We’re religious people, so we prayed to God and we had a lot of people that are friends and family that were doing likewise, and people we’ve never even heard of and never met praying all over the country.”

… … … …

SAM SLOAN’S SUPPORT GROUP THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRETY OF THIS ORDEAL has provided the young man with so much hope and inspiration it’s impossible to imagine he’d be here so happy and healthy again without it. It is a far-reaching group that extends well beyond just family and friends and includes people from all walks of life, some of whom were total strangers before the accident occurred.

His dad was the only family member that was with him in Hoover that day, but that changed very quickly. His mom drove up from Florida as soon as she could get away, Sam’s grandparents from Indiana drove down and friends from back home in Florida came to visit.

Perfect Game’s people were there from the beginning helping in every way possible. The entire baseball community, in fact, rallied behind him and he received visits and best wishes from a large swath of current and former big-leaguers including Clayton Kershaw, Luis Gonzalez and Tom “Flash” Gordon, among many others.

Especially important to Sam was the outpouring of support he received from head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the University of Florida’s “Gator Nation”.

“It was more than I could even ask for,” Sam said. “The first thing that I remember truly asking my dad about was, hey, what’s going on with Florida? And he told me they had been calling him every single day making sure that you’re OK, and they just want to make sure you’re healthy; that’s all they care about.”

Richie Palmer had his Elite Squad team in Hoover for the PG WWBA 17u Elite National Championship during the week Sloan was in the UAB hospital so he decided to pay Sam a visit, as well.

“I was pretty nervous, as I think any coach is when you become attached to players and you hear that they’re hurting,” Palmer said. “It was pretty nerve-racking going into the hospital when I got there; I didn’t know what to expect. And then there he was trying to convince me that he was fine and that he was ready to go. …

“Obviously we, as adults, know that it’s going to take some time to heal but as far as Sammy was concerned he wanted to join us for that tournament right then.”

Phil Sloan spoke at length of the tremendous support his son has received, reserving most of his praise for the work of the team of doctors at UAB University Hospital who were providing his care when the situation looked most dire.

And he is also very appreciative of the support shown by the Perfect Game community, citing PG Founder/President Jerry Ford, PG Cares Foundation Director Jennifer Ford and PG CEO Brad Clement specifically for their outreach and levels of concern.

“Perfect Game went over and beyond anything that I would have expected out of them and they were a huge, huge, huge part in my stability emotionally, physically, financially,” Phil said. “They helped out more than I can ever give them gratitude or praise for. …It was this amazing show of support from not only just Perfect Game but the whole baseball community itself.”

PG’s Clement deferred any credit to the ones who deserve it most:

“The resolve that Sam has shown, with the assistance of his family and friends, since the injury occurred at the Hoover Met in June is remarkable,” he said. “Credit also goes to the excellent medical assistance Sam received immediately after the incident in the following days in the greater Birmingham area and during his rehab after he was able to return to Florida.

“It has been heartwarming to see the PG staff and many others throughout baseball rally around Sam and his family with their thoughts, prayers and support in various ways.”

Sam, too, appreciates what PG has done for him and in reality he’s just super appreciative of the thoughts and prayers he’s received from every corner. He has been an active member of the Elite Squad family since the fall of 2017 and he cherishes the time he gets to spend with his teammates and coaches from the Squad.

“They’re great people,” he said. “Richie has helped me tremendously and welcomed me back with open arms. He’s done everything he possibly can to help me in any way throughout my injury. Calling me, checking up on me, seeing how I’m doing even though I wasn’t able to play the rest of the summer.”

Palmer has kept in touch regularly while Sam worked his way back to health. Early in the recovery process Sam told his coach that he intended to be in full-form and ready to pitch at the PG WWBA World Championship in October. Palmer had his doubts right up until Sam called him a week before the event to tell him he was ready to go.

“He’s a special kid and I knew that before this happened,” he said. “Throughout this whole experience you kind of got to see that play out and everybody got to see the type of kid he is.”

… … … …

THE CONSENSUS DURING THE EARLY STAGES OF SAM SLOAN’S RECOVERY PROCESS was that he would be lucky if he could regain enough strength to pitch during the 2021 spring season at Lakeland (Fla.) Senior HS. But he had set that steadfast goal of pitching for the Elite Squad at the Jupiter event and wasn’t about to be denied.

“(Doctors) kept him from doing anything for six weeks after the injury,” Phil said. “He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t run or lift or do anything; he lost a lot of weight and muscle mass. The day they turned him loose after that six weeks, he’s been going at it every day … doing whatever it took to get himself back to where he could get back on that field before the fall season was over.”

Initially, the doctors told Sam that there was a possibility that he could experience seizures throughout the early stages of his recovery but he had none. He also didn’t experience headaches or any other post-injury symptoms the doctors warned of.

That was key. It was his accelerated rate of healing and recovery that enabled Sam to get out on the mound in an extremely competitive environment only four months after fracturing his skull.

“Overall, I feel great,” he said. “I’ve had no setbacks; I’ve been able to work out for about a two months now and throw. I haven’t felt any effects of anything (except) when I was in the hospital with headaches and stuff like that. But overall I feel great; I haven’t had any problems with anything.”

Going into his first live outing the first week in October, Sam did wonder what would happen if he were to be hit in the head again by a screaming line-drive. But then he thought, you know, if somebody had asked him if he thought he would take a line-drive to the head while pitching at the PG National, he would have told them they were flat-out crazy.

The chances of that play materializing are very slim, of course. Once it does happen, however, it’s always going to be there in the back of the pitcher’s mind and Sam acknowledges that. But he has no choice other than to continue to approach the game the same way he always has and that’s to go out there and pitch with unmatched intensity, dominate and do whatever’s necessary to be successful.

“I just have to keep on fighting through,” Sam said. “At the end of the day, if it happens it happens; there’s nothing you can do about it. I just have to go out there and play the game like I always do. It’s all in God’s hands and it’s all in His plans. Everything’s in God’s hands, everything happens for a reason and so you just go out there and do what He’s blessed you to do. …

“There’s a plan for me so I just keep the whole mental (side) of it to just go out there and do what I’ve always done.”

Sam Sloan finally marched out to the mound in the fourth inning of the game against US Elite on October 11 and didn’t disappoint. He threw 36 pitches in a little over an inning of work without allowing a run on one hit, while striking out three and walking two; his fastball topped-out at 89 mph.

There are still going to be challenges ahead, of course, but on this day it could be proclaimed without hesitation that Sam’s comeback was in many ways complete. It’s been an especially challenging four months in a calendar year that has been filled with challenges for everyone, but in the end the good guys generally come out on top.

“No. 1, we just wanted him to survive it,” Phil said of the injury. “No. 2, you do start thinking is he going to get back his fine motor skills that made him such a great pitcher, is he going to be apprehensive and timid about a ball being hit back him? All those things go through your mind and he never once batted an eye about it.”

And then Philip Sloan thought back to that day in Hoover and again marveled at his son’s resolve: “From the time that he walked into that dugout when he got injured he was begging the staff at Perfect Game to let him go back out there and finish the inning.”

That isn’t just resolve, that’s truly remarkable. And on October 11 in Fort Myers, Samuel Sloan was given the opportunity to finish what he had started four months earlier in Hoover. Well done, Sammy Sloan, well done …

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