Baseball, Life, and Adversity; the Heartwarming Story of Mark Appel
"With the Number One Pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, the Houston Astros Select RHP Mark Appel, Stanford University". From being a relief pitcher for his high school team, to being selected number one overall in the 2013 MLB Draft, Mark Appel already had a great baseball story. That tidbit has basically become a forward to the great Mark Appel fairytale.
Twenty-one year old Mark Appel not only experienced his dream come true, but he accomplished something even greater that night than being drafted number one overall in 2013. The year before, the Pittsburgh Pirates had selected him 8th overall, but Appel decided to bet on himself, and return back to school to play one more year with the Stanford Cardinal. Mark admits on the Diamonds in the Rough Podcast that there were plenty of folks who felt he made the wrong decision. He says from the circle of people he trusted, it was a "50-50" split on what the best route was. That night in 2013, his decision was confirmed correct. He was the number one pick, a top prospect in baseball, and on pace to fast track to the big leagues; the journey that ensued from here was one nobody saw coming.
After a clean end of the year in 2013, Appel rolled into 2014 with very high hopes. He came in to his first spring training as a #1 pick with everything in front of him. Appel pitched two full seasons injury free in 2014 and 2015, but his performance did not match his or the organizations' expectations. Appel tells us that he was not himself during those years. He admits "I made it through 2014 and 2015 surprisingly without going to the DL." His elbow was bothering him, his mental state was wavering, and he had an appendectomy in 2014 that he feels contributed to what was to follow.
After being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2016, the first surgery came later that year when Mark underwent Tommy John Surgery. He elbow had been bothering him for awhile, and he finally went under the knife. "Surgery was almost a relief for me" Appel states, "I was walking guys and getting hit around the park, at that point, it was not fun for me at all." He was able to reset mentality and buy into the rehab process with hopes he could finally return to his old form. As often happens in rehab though, his elbow was healed, but other problems arose. His first season back in 2017, Appel knew his shoulder was not right. He was walking guys at a rate he never had in his career, and his velocity was way down. He finished the year in 2017 with a 5.27 ERA and 1.756 WHIP.
When Appel went home for the offseason following his year in 2017, he realized something. He was checking every box in his shoulder rehab and when he picked up a ball it still hurt. For the first time in his life, he was not enjoying showing up to the field. "When I was around my family, I just felt refreshed" Mark says, "I felt like there was hope because I knew no matter what, my family loved me." Mark knew he needed to be home, and he made the decision to step away from the game before the 2018 decision. He called the Phillies and let them know he was not coming to spring training, knowing good and well he could have thrown his last pitch. It is rare that a team would leave the door open for a possible return to play after taking a break, but the Phillies did just that. The team supported and understood Mark's decision and told him that if he ever wanted to come back to let them know.
What the Phillies did was allow Mark to equip himself with experiences and knowledge of life that can not be obtained of a baseball field. "I didn't pick a ball for 9 months, and lived like I would never play baseball again, and it was awesome" Mark laughs "for the first time in my life i was a normal person, no one cared about how I was performing every day and whether I would make it to the big leagues, I was just Mark." He traveled the world, went Kayaking with his dad, and hiking with his family. His eyes were opened to what life is truly about, and understood that baseball does not define who he is.
If you follow Mark on Twitter, you see what I'm talking about. He has multiple twitter threads where he talks about his learned experiences and encourages others through them. Through his adversity, he learned about failure, suffering, and relationships. He says "a life with no suffering, is a life not worth living", he goes on to talk about how he doesn't seek out suffering, but knows that when he does go through adversity, he will come out the other side calloused and tougher. Stepping away from the game allowed him to look at life from the big picture and evaluate how everything he went through could be used to make him a better person and better equipped for anything this world throws at him.
While he loved his time away from the game, he was still a competitor at heart, and something was missing. He decided it was time to return to the game he loved, and underwent shoulder surgery at the end of 2018 with hopes of getting back on the saddle. After a long rehab process, followed by the canceled season in 2020 due to COVID-19, Mark Appel made his return to baseball debut in 2021, 3 seasons removed from his last professional outing. There was rust that needed to be knocked off, but the important thing was he was healthier than he had been since he was drafted.
Coming into this year, Mark felt great about where he was physically, mentally, and spiritually. He had grown so much over the last 4 years, and for the first time in a long time, he was truly happy to be playing baseball again. It seems that often times, evaluators forget how important being happy is to an athletes' on field performance. Mark has pitched to a 1.61 ERA coming out of the bullpen for the Leigh High Valley Iron Pigs, leading to the entire baseball community anticipating whether the former #1 overall pick would finally make his big league debut.
The anticipation turned into excitement on Saturday, June 25th as it was announced that Mark Appel would be joining the Philadelphia Phillies, 9 years after he was drafted #1 overall. After years of scrutiny, being called the biggest bust in baseball history, 3 surgeries, and time away from the game, Mark Appel is a big leaguer. He has yet to make his debut, but when he does take the mound for the Phillies, I can only imagine how special it will be for him. I imagine he will go back to everything he has gone through, and while already standing on the tallest point on a baseball field, Mark Appel will be standing even taller. Sports are built for stories like this, and in a world where division seems evident, it's nice to have a common interest that we can all rally around unanimously.
Congratulations to my friend Mark Appel, you are a big leaguer.