As he has done for many years, John Patros is spending the spring of 2021 on a baseball field. The Saint Agnes junior dutifully shows up at West Minnehaha playground for practice and home games for coach Mike Streitz’s baseball team. After missing the 2020 season due to COVID issues, Patros is happy to be outside again – even when the Aggies are practicing and playing in the occasionally fickle Minnesota spring weather.
This spring, however, is different than the other springs Patros has spent in uniform. This year, Patros can only watch his teammates play ball.
The 17-year old observes games from the bench in a back brace that looks like an old fashioned corset. He is still in the recovery stage from a stress fracture to his back suffered last summer. Reduced to the role of bystander this spring, Patros is seeing the sport he loves to play from a very different perspective.
“It’s very frustrating because I have a passion for baseball,” Patros said. “It’s hard and humbling at times. But I have learned a lot of stuff.”
In 2019, athletic life was very good for Patros. A sophomore, he was the star running back for an excellent Aggie football team, rushing for over 1200 yards, and making tackles on defense. He was excited for baseball the following spring but COVID got in the way, amputating the season.
No matter. There was summer ball. Patros batted leadoff and played shortstop for the Aggies’ summer team. He had a good season at the plate and in the field. “I thought I was hot stuff,” he admitted.
Late last summer, Patros was over at a friend’s house when he decided to do a double back flip. He landed on his back. That hurt a bit but he shrugged it off. In the final baseball game of the summer, Patros was in his usual leadoff spot and singled. When he got the steal sign, he was ready to take off. As he neared second base, Patros made the decision to hit the dirt. “I gotta slide and I went in head first,” he recalled. “The worst part was I was out.”
Well, there was a little more to it. As he sat on the bench, Patros’ back began to cramp up. But he didn’t say anything and finished the game. Things took a dark turn quickly and he needed help walking to the car. “I knew then something was wrong,” he said.
The date was August 13, 2020. Patros visited a doctor who first diagnosed it as a muscle issue. The prescription was a simple one. Patros simply needed to stand down and rest.
Rest, however, didn’t help and eventually, a MRI was ordered.
MRIs can tell a fellow a lot of things. Patros had more than a sore back. His L5 and L3 vertebrae needed more time to heal. Dr. Dan Buss, an orthopedic surgeon, explained, “This is actually a common injury. Most of the time, this will heal in about three months. The goal is to eventually get the athlete to full activities.”
Surgery was not ordered but it did require something that was even harder for Patros to deal with. The guy who had always been a whirling dervish now could not take part in gym class at school. He had to restrict himself at home to just doing homework. “It drove me crazy,” he said. “I’m an active guy. I took up drawing to keep busy.”
Playing in the abbreviated football season last fall was out of the question. By November, however, Patros’ back had healed enough that he could do some light exercising. It was better than nothing but Patros had a bigger wish. “I wanted my body to heal itself,” he said.
It wasn’t exactly like a winter of discontent. But it was close.
By March, Patros was really getting the itch to play. He started doing more light workouts. Things went well for a while. Later in the month, however, he hurt the back while lifting. Now he went to see Dr. Chris Alcala, a renowned physician at Twin Cities Spine Center in downtown St. Paul.
Dr. Alcala’s verdict was swift and succinct: He told Patros you only get one back. There is no such thing as L5 and L3 transplant surgery. If Patros wanted full use of his back to ever be active again, he needed to put on a brace for several weeks. It could come off at bedtime but, for now, that’s it.
Bummed about not being able to play baseball, Patros found himself in Streitz’s office a while back. Streitz had a way that the junior could be an important part of the team.
“He assured me that I would be a big part of the team – even from the bench. We both had a short cry, vowed it would be the last and that we would move forward,” Patros said.
“He is my bench coach,” Streitz said. In a short time, Patros started seeing things he had never noticed before on a diamond. In addition to keeping teammates’ spirits up, Patros is now watching the game intently on the bench. “I’m learning a lot,” he said. “I think I can help the guys.”
He also discovered some things about himself in the process. “I know now I am not such hot stuff – just one part of an elaborate formula,” he said.
Like a lot of juniors, Patros is thinking ahead to his senior year at Saint Agnes. If healthy, he wants to hit the ground running for football this fall. He is thinking of going out for wrestling next winter and then there is baseball in the spring of 2022.
“I love baseball and football so much,” he said. “I really missed playing. But I now know how much more goes into it. Hopefully, it will make me a better, smarter player.”
The current post high school plans has Patros wanting to be a firefighter. But that is well down the road. For now, Patros is concentrating on getting healthy and back on the playing field. He has also learned that lessons simply cannot be taught in a schoolbook. “It’s been challenging to sit out and watch,” he reflected. “The hardest part is to not even swing the bat or throw the ball at least once. This injury has taught me self-control. Every day I make the choice not to sulk but to move on with a smile and know that I am helping my team in other ways.”