KITCHENER – Shaun Hancock was on the mound in a game for the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut when he felt a pop in his elbow, followed by an immediate burning sensation.
He finished the inning in agony, throwing another 20 pitches, and told his coach something was wrong. It was April 20, 2011.
“It felt like somebody had a blowtorch on my elbow. Probably one of the worse feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” the Oakville-raised pitcher said.
But an MRI didn’t find anything – so Hancock lived with the pain and a few days later was back in Ontario, suiting up for the Kitchener Panthers. He pitched in only one game upon his return, getting badly knocked around by Barrie.
The following morning, the 24-year-old reliever couldn’t close his car door. It hurt to lift his arm above his head to shampoo his hair. And his hand shook violently when he tried to pour milk on his cereal.
What Hancock didn’t know was he’d torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow. If he ever wanted to pitch again, he’d need to go through reconstructive Tommy John surgery.
In August, 2011, he went under the knife. Doctors drilled holes in the bones in his elbow, and a new tendon was woven into place. His U.S. college paid for the work.
Tommy John surgery is a common enough process for pitchers, but for a young ball player, it was still a heady decision. The procedure meant staying off the mound for over a year, with no guarantees his baseball career would emerge intact.
“It was really scary realizing I may never pick up a baseball competitively again,” he admitted. “But at the same time, I knew if I wanted to play competitively, it was the only way I could do it.”
So far, Hancock’s reconstructed elbow is working beyond expectations.
In his first full spring since coming back, the 24-year-old showed few lingering effects of the surgery, throwing three complete games for the University of Bridgeport. Since rejoining the Panthers, he’s been a reliable and versatile reliever, earning one win and one save in ten innings of work.
He doesn’t overpower hitters, but has an effective “backwards” approach that keeps batters off-balance by starting with slower speed pitches and progressing to his modest fastball.
Hancock already knows a thing or two about comebacks. He’s been through a major surgery before that threatened to put his career on ice. In 2008, he had a nine-month rehab after surgery to remove pinched nerves in his elbow.
“I was playing catch and I lost all feeling in my hand. The ball just fell out of my hand and I had no clue. It turns out I had scar tissue buildup, and it was pinching the nerve,” he said.
While he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, Hancock still came to the ballpark and studied opposing hitters, analyzing batting patterns and swings.
He also found another way to stay connected to the game – as a volunteer pitching coach for the Kitchener Panthers minor and major PeeWee team in Kitchener.
“The kids loved him, they gravitated toward him,” said Darryl Sanders, a coach with the team. “I think he just loves the game. He’s been around it his whole life, and wanted to give back to the kids.”
The following season, when the team’s head coach Jeff Hatt was battling cancer, Hancock filled an even bigger coaching role, driving in from Oakville multiple times a week to help mentor his young players.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without Shaun. He just jumped in with 100 per cent commitment,” he said. “He didn’t have to do this.”
By the fall of 2012, Hancock was taking his first few tentative steps back on the mound. But he was hesitant to pitch at high velocity, until a college coach convinced him to let go of his fear and trust his new elbow.
“I had two choices. I could either stop playing, or I could get rid of this fear inside me,” he said.
So he let go.
“The first time I did it, I threw three fastballs down the middle and struck the guy out. And it was so rewarding, because it was like all the work I did was finally paying off. I was back.”
The look ahead
The Panthers travel to London Saturday to take on the second-place Majors. Marcos Reyna, who has struck out 28 batters in 29 innings, will start in the 7:35 p.m. game.
On Sunday, Kitchener hosts the last-place Guelph Royals at Jack Couch Park. Pitcher Matt Robertson, who has 18 strikeouts in 17.1 innings, will take the mound for the 7 p.m. start.