Glass half full

It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Kole Kampen at Fort Dodge Senior High.

The Dodgers’ senior left-handed ace had big plans for the final month of his prep baseball career. Kampen was striking out nearly two batters per inning, and had a sparkling 1.17 earned run average. He was batting .347 at the plate as the clean-up hitter, and leading the team in home runs and RBI. Fort Dodge had won 11 of its first 17 games.

The University of Iowa recruit took the mound last Wednesday at McNeil Field for a start against top-ranked Johnston – the kind of opportunity that makes him tick. And then, just four batters into the contest, it happened.

”I heard a snap in my elbow,” Kampen said. ”I didn’t know exactly what it was after the first pitch, so I kept throwing. But as I threw my next five pitches, I knew I should (stop) because something was wrong.”

Something was indeed wrong. Kampen found out the next day at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City that he had torn a tendon in his left elbow. Tommy John surgery – reconstruction of the ulnar collateral ligament, which typically requires a full year of rehabilitation – was suddenly imminent.

”I was hoping that (the injury) wasn’t too bad, because I would’ve liked to finish off my last season as a Dodger with my close friends,” Kampen said. ”After I found out, it was very upsetting – just sitting there knowing I won’t be able to compete again for at least a whole year after the surgery.

”After all the work I put in on doing the right things with arm care, I never would’ve thought this would happen to me.”

There were more Tommy John surgeries performed in 2014 than all of the 1990s combined. On average, nearly 30 procedures take place annually among Major League pitchers alone.

Opinions vary on the reasons for a virtual outbreak of recent UCL injuries. Kampen, for one, doesn’t exactly fit the profile. He hadn’t been overworked; in fact, Kampen had never thrown more than 38 varsity innings in a single season. He hadn’t been underworked; Kampen was well known for his off-season training and long-toss ability. He didn’t concentrate solely on baseball; Kampen was a two-time all-district performer and three-year starter for the Dodger football program, as well as being a standout wrestler through his freshman season at FDSH.

There are, I’m sure, little things here and there that Kampen would’ve done differently with the benefit of hindsight. And yes, specialization is a serious issue right now at the high school level, where families are becoming too focused on isolating for individual gain rather than growing through participation and teamwork.

That wasn’t Kampen, though. At the end of the day, the analysis is simple: he’s a perceptive kid from an outstanding family who caught a tough break. Instead of looking for reasons to compartmentalize this unfortunate injury and turn his pending Tommy John surgery journey into a statistic to feed the stereotypes, we should pause and recognize his parting words as a Dodger:

”I’m hurt that I can’t play one more time at the high school level and have fun competing with my friends – making me realize that you should never take anything for granted.”

This is a teenager, not a robot. He wasn’t misused or mishandled. Kampen’s story isn’t one of entitlement, or arrogance, or doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. He loved competing for Fort Dodge Senior High and for his teammates. There was no hidden agenda.

Less than 24 hours after meeting with doctors in Iowa City, Kampen posted this message on Facebook:

”Just want to thank everyone for all the support the last day. It means a lot to me. It’s a bad deal this has to happen, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Being positive is the only option around here so please … don’t feel sorry for me!”

The prognosis was bleak. The diagnosis was sobering. Yes, it wasn’t supposed to end like this for Kole Kampen at Fort Dodge Senior High. But winners persevere and find a way to turn adversity into an opportunity. Kampen has the mentality and sense of perspective to do just that.

At his core, he’ll always be a Dodger. Don’t count him out.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net