Ryan Sheldon's baseball career was supposed to have ended years ago.
Don't tell that to the rest of the Frontier League, where Sheldon went 9-5, 2.21 last year as a rookie. After developing a cutter midway through the season, he had a 0.47 ERA for the rest of the season.
But before his college career even began, Sheldon was told that he would likely never pitch effectively again.
It all began with a fall in a pickup basketball game not long before he was supposed to begin his freshman season at Barton (Kan.) CC. Sheldon landed wrong and broke his elbow in five pieces. Elbow fractures are never an easy injury for a pitcher, but doctors didn't really have an easy way to repair a pitching elbow that was as shattered as this one.
"They call it the terrible triad. It's pretty much the worst thing you can do to your arm," Sheldon said. "They kind of did stuff they'd never done before (in the surgery) . . . The doctor told me that I would be lucky to be able to throw 80 miles an hour maybe. You might get back to 80 maybe. If you get back to 90, call me because I want to see it."
Mike Warren, his coach at Barton, was among those who assumed that Sheldon's pitching career was over.
"I am surprised he was even able to come back. Two doctors that saw his elbow after he had the accident refused to operate and fix it because it was too complicated of a surgery. Finally a doctor in Kearney took it on and the rest is history . . . I thought he would never throw a baseball again," Warren said.
To give him a chance to pitch again, Sheldon's arm couldn't be put in a cast after surgery—it would have reduced the range of motion of his elbow. So instead, he wore a series of splints. They meant that he didn't get much sleep during his recovery, but it did allow him to get back on the mound.
Sheldon had thrown in the low 90s before the injury, and his plan was to pitch for a year or two at junior college, then sign with a Division I school. The injury wiped those plans out. But after a year of rehabilitation, Sheldon got back on the mound for Barton in 2006. He pitched for Barton again in 2007, and then began a successful career at Division II Nebraska-Kearney. Sheldon was named the Rocky Mount Athletic Conference pitcher of the year in 2009.
"If anyone had seen the x-ray of his elbow after it happened, they would have given him no chance to come back and pitch again. It truly is a situation where hard work and determination on the part of Ryan is why he is able to do what he is doing today," Warren said.
Like a lot of small school standouts, success didn't lead to a draft call. Sheldon did throw five innings with the American Association's Sioux Falls club late in the 2009 season, but when the Canaries released him, he decided to shut it down until the 2010 season.
It proved to be a wise choice. The Cornbelters signed him out of the Frontier League tryout camp, and with the rested Sheldon showing firmer stuff, he quickly became Normal's ace once he moved into the rotation. "This is my 16th year in independent baseball," manager Hal Lanier said. "I've seen a lot of pitchers. Last year he had the best command of any pitcher I've had in independent baseball. He may not have thrown the hardest, but it's 90-91 mph."
Lanier managed future big leaguers George Sherill, Bobby Madritsch and Jeff Zimmerman in indy ball, which makes that praise all the more meaningful. His praise comes with a question as well. Considering all that, he's kind of puzzled that Sheldon is still pitching for Normal.
"I can't understand why he's not with an organization," Lanier said. "I know that Ryan can pitch in Organized Ball. I know he can pitch in high Class A or Double-A ball right now."
The best explanation for why Sheldon is still pitching in the Frontier League is his adequate, but not overwhelming velocity. Sheldon's work is better appreciated over eight innings than eight pitches. He won't light up radar guns in a workout, but he does have a secret weapon.
Midway through last season, Sheldon was struggling to locate his slider. So in a bullpen session between starts, he tried throwing a cut fastball instead. By his next start, it was a useful weapon.
"I throw it in any count. Think of all the 3-1 counts, full counts, 1-1 count," Sheldon said. "All those counts where the hitter is at an advantage. If you throw something that looks like a fastball almost as fast as a fastball, that cuts, it's almost impossible for a hitter unless he's looking for it."
It proved impossible for the rest of the Frontier League last year. From Aug. 1 to the end of the season, Sheldon had a 0.47 ERA. For the season, he finished second in the Frontier League with a 2.21 ERA to go with his 9-5 record. He's kept pounding the zone this year as well. He was 2-0, 1.86 over his first three starts.
"Can he duplicate those numbers he had last year? Who knows. He might, but those numbers were awfully good. I think he will get picked up sometime during the season. Of course, he has to put up the numbers, but he's confident in his ability," Lanier said.