By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
BUFFALO, NY – From an outside glance, it was just a moment like any other.
It had happened hundreds of times before over the last four years – Mike Krische put on his batting gloves, grabbed his bat, walked out of the home dugout at the Demske Sports Complex and stepped up to the plate for the Canisius College Golden Griffins.
This time, as the 21-year-old made the short trip to the batter’s box, his entire team got up with him. Every player, coach and staff member rose from the bench and stopped what they were doing to stand just outside of the dugout, anxious with anticipation. When Chris Hill announced Krische to pinch-hit against the Niagara Purple Eagles through the stadium speakers, their ovation was unmistakable.
In the squad’s final series of the regular season – before winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship the following weekend – there was nothing more exciting than seeing the senior outfielder complete his comeback.
“That was just incredible,” teammate and Windsor, Ont., native Brett Siddall said. “When we saw him go down with injury that was just the toughest thing. He was the one guy you don’t want to see go down, and then to think you might never see him have an at-bat again [is hard]. But him trotting out there, that was pretty special to see him get up there.”
About five weeks earlier, Krische had been routinely running out a ball to first base when he got tangled up in a collision and did serious damage to his left ankle. Just over a month away from graduating with a biology degree on the path to medical school and heading on a run to his second MAAC title with the Griffs, the man who was three stolen bases away from the school’s record all of a sudden thought his time on the field might have come to an end.
“I definitely knew something was wrong,” Krische said. “I had never had an ankle injury – that was my first ankle injury – so I didn’t know if it was sprained, which I was hoping for, but I knew right when I went down it was pretty bad. I was just trying to stay optimistic [but] I had a lateral and medial fracture in my ankle, and then my fibula fracture, which was the least of the worries. They said I was obviously done for the season because we were already halfway through.”
The moment was disappointing for both the speedy centre fielder and for everyone around him. A sparkplug offensively, a stellar defender, and a vocal leader both on and off the field, the thought of losing Krische for any amount of time was less than ideal.
“It was one of the hardest things because the trainer is saying it’s broken and it looks bad,” assistant coach Matt Mazurek said. “Initially they said his ankle blew up, chips blowing everywhere, so it’s just devastating. Then you go in and look at the redshirt [limitations] and [players can’t have played more than] 30 per cent of your games and he was at 40 per cent of the games. It was devastating at that point too and you’re thinking this kid’s career is over.
“But he’s very physical and very smart in the weight room and he takes care of himself, so there’s still an outside chance at the time of the injury, and you never know. Now that it’s come to fruition it’s amazing … We’ve talked about it being a blessing, and the fact that he’s got to stay positive and not get down on himself because everything from this point is so positive. It’s great. You can’t ask for more out of that kid.”
A huge part of the team, Mazurek and head coach Mike McRae (Niagara Falls, Ont.) made arrangements for Krische to continue travelling with the Griffins, making sure he never missed a beat with his squad along the way.
“He’s been travelling with us on the road so that’s good, and he stayed with us,” Siddall said. “He didn’t want to stay back. He’s definitely been really supportive with all the guys and he loves being around the team so that’s been big for us. He’s a big-time leader on the team and everybody looks up to him.”
Added senior hurler and fellow BC native Devon Stewart: “He’s a leader; everyone looks up to him. Whether we’re down or up he’s the same, and he’s a guy everyone can look to. He’ll get on guys when they need to get on and he’ll be positive when we’re doing well, so it’s definitely good having him on the bench regardless of whether he’s playing or not.”
It meant a lot to Krische.
“That was pretty special to me,” he said. “That was one of the things I was thinking about right away as soon as I got injured – I don’t want to miss out, it’s my senior year, I want to be with the team, and I want to be with these guys the whole way. Obviously Coach Mac and Coach Maz were awesome about it. They said, ‘We definitely weren’t going to leave you behind,’ so that was pretty special to me.”
The day before Krische got his first plate appearance in that matchup against Niagara – appearing in every game since, and being named to the MAAC championship all-tournament team – the team tested his readiness with batting practice and five at-bats in a controlled intrasquad game.
“Prior to that Coach Mac said, ‘Get him in and have him take some swings,’” Mazurek said. “We took batting practice – about a bucket-and-a-half, and I’m sitting there thinking who would have thought I’d be throwing Mike Krische batting practice right now? And he’s hammering baseballs back at me. All Mike was worried about was, ‘I’m afraid that when I go to run,’ and I said, ‘Who cares when you go run?’”
As exciting as that was for everyone, his first official at-bat upon returning was a definite season highlight.
“I thought it was unreal to be quite honest,” said Iannick Remillard, a junior pitcher from Valleyfield, Que. “As soon as the kid got hurt there was word around that it was season-ending, he’s done, it’s over with, and then just a couple weeks ago we were joking around and saying he might make a comeback. Then we saw him [in the] intersquad game.
“He took batting practice and the first pitch he hit landed about two feet in front of the [outfield] fence. It’s really unique for this guy, also knowing that he’s three stolen bases away from the record at Canisius … He’s one hell of a leader on the team, whether he’s on the field or off the field, so just having him is great, but having him on the field again is something.”
Fellow seniors and longtime friends Connor Panas (Etobicoke, Ont.) and Stewart (Maple Ridge, BC) have shared in Krische’s four-year journey at Canisius, and were especially excited to see him work his way back to finish the season on his own terms.
“That was definitely pretty exciting,” Stewart said. “I’ve been with him since freshman year – we’ve roomed together every year – and when the injury happened it was pretty tough. We didn’t think there was a chance he was going to come back, so it was really good to see him get back in the box.”
Added Panas: “Being his roommate and one of his best buddies here, it was great to see him bounce back so quickly. We especially [wanted] him in that MAAC tournament and I’m really rooting for him…You don’t want to see a senior go out the way he did and for him to come back like this, I’m proud of him.”
Krische first thought a comeback might be within the realm of possibility when he learned that his injury didn’t need to be surgically repaired, but it didn’t really sink in until just days before it actually happened.
“When [I found out] I didn’t need surgery, about a week-and-a-half after the injury, that was a little glimpse of hope for me,” he said. “But probably a couple of weeks ago it started becoming more serious where they started ordering me EvoShields and some protective gear. Then it was in the back of my head. The last week [before he returned to the lineup] we turned up the physical and forced the rehab a little bit. It’s been pretty exciting.”
The events surrounding his plate appearance went quickly. When McRae asked Krische if he wanted to bat late in the first game of the team’s final doubleheader, he answered as his coach expected with, “Obviously.” Looking for a fastball to square up, he returned to the bench unsuccessful after seeing three pitches, but it didn’t seem to matter.
“Honestly it’s special just to be back on the field with these guys because I didn’t think I would have the opportunity again,” he said. “I thought my career was over. Despite the outcomes or whatever, it’s just nice to be back on the field and take it all in.”