Injury gives Tokarski new perspective
Illinois State sophomore Kevin Tokarski's mind zoomed past any positive possibility and traveled straight to the worst when told his wrist needed to be rebroken and required reconstructive surgery in May 2009.
The worst being his baseball career was over.
There was no hope left in Tokarski. He had originally injured his left wrist when he heard it pop while swinging a bat during the summer of 2008. That was followed by countless visits to various doctors who all told him something different, and his optimism diminished with each hospital visit.
First, he was diagnosed with tendinitis, but that wasn't right. Another doctor couldn't figure out what was wrong and sent him to Springfield, Ill. There, he had surgery, but it didn't improve anything, and he was forced to redshirt the 2009 college season.
"I just wanted to play and have my wrist feel better," said Tokarski, a native of Downers Grove, Ill. "Nobody could tell me what was wrong with it, and it was still hurting. The worst part was people were telling me that there was nothing wrong, and it just stayed the same. I started panicking a little bit."
Finally in May, nearly a year after the initial injury, he sat in a doctor's office in Indianapolis and received the crushing news of reconstructive surgery. The doctor told Tokarski his ongoing problem was actually due to the fact that his wrist never properly healed when he broke it playing football as a 12-year-old.
"Never being able to play baseball again was the first thing going through my mind," Tokarski said.
It's a thought that seems so distant from the present.
These days, Tokarski leads the nation in hitting with a .469 average.
Tokarski did go through with the reconstructive surgery, rehabbed for three months, began working out again, then required another surgery in October to remove two screws that were irritating his wrist's tendons, missed the fall baseball season and rejoined his Illinois State teammates in the winter.
On Feb. 19, Tokarski stepped to the plate for real again. He was Illinois State's leadoff hitter against Austin Peay in the Redbirds' 2010 season opener. He wasn't about to ease himself into the game again. He swung at the first pitch he saw -- a fastball -- smashed it off the left-center wall and raced to third base for a triple.
He was back.
A day later, he went 3-for-5. Two days later, he was 3-for-4. In his fifth game, he was 4-for-5. In his 13th game, he homered for the first time in his college career.
Now through 38 games and 147 at-bats, he has a batting averaging of. 469 with 69 hits, 22 doubles, three triples, six home runs, 53 runs, 39 RBIs, 24 stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .583 and a slugging percentage of .782. His batting average and on-base percentages lead the country, he's 10th in doubles and 18th in slugging percentage.
None of it is what Tokarski had planned.
"The only expectation I had this year was to play opening day," Tokarski said. "It was the only expectation I had. I'm probably the most surprised of anyone around. It is kind of surreal."
Illinois State coach Mark Kingston could be lumped in that category, too.
Kingston wasn't Illinois State's coach until the 2009 season, so he didn't recruit Tokarski and he wasn't around to witness Tokarski's 2008 season, which included him winning the Missouri Valley's Freshman of the Year award, hitting .303 and stealing 32 bases.
Kingston only knew of the injured Tokarski.
"At one point, we were just hoping he would play again," Kingston said. "By the time you get to that third surgery, it's like an 0-2 count. You're hoping to survive again. We never thought after three surgeries he could have this kind of year. Absolutely not."
The last two surgeries did work magic on Tokarski. He can notice a remarkable difference between his wrist now to when he thought it was healthy in 2008. He feels more comfortable swinging a bat and has much more power.
"Everybody on the team told me I have no power," Tokarski said. "It was good to show the guys what I can do this year. Now, they can't talk."
Tokarski's wrist occasionally bothers him, and that mostly occurs while fielding ground balls at second base. Kingston is careful with Tokarski and does limit him at times during practice.
With Tokarski's numbers, major league scouts have taken notice of him. Kingston believes Tokarski has the potential to play at the next level, but said he would have to prove his wrist was reliable.
"When it's all said and done, I think he can be a pro prospect and can be for a long time," Kingston said.
Tokarski is willing to wait for that. After having gone through so much just to play baseball again, he has developed an appreciation for the here and now.
"The only thing I learned is not to take anything for granted," Tokarski said. "Anytime can be your last at-bat or last game. I try to go out there and give everything while I'm out there."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.