On the verge of a breakout, 29-year-old right fielder Ryan Church suddenly found his career crash to an abrupt halt after suffering a severe concussion on the basepaths. Less than two years later, he quietly retired from Major League Baseball. Church recently spoke with BP Mets about the aftereffects of his concussion, Shea Stadium’s final game, and life after baseball.
Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Ryan Church was introduced to the game of baseball at a very early age. As he found himself watching a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants on television as a four-year-old, the game immediately called to him.
“Baseball was my life after that,” Church told BP Mets. “I always said I’d be on TV playing baseball. I never thought differently from there on out.”
Fast forward 14 years and Church found himself as a starting pitcher for the University of Nevada as an 18-year-old freshman. In his first season as a starter for the Wolf Pack, Church went 6-5 with a 4.74 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 79.2 innings pitched in 17 appearances (14 starts). It was later that season, however, that changed the course of Church’s baseball life.
After experiencing discomfort in his throwing shoulder, Church was diagnosed with a torn labrum and was forced to undergo surgery, thus putting his career in jeopardy in it’s early stages. “I truly felt I was done,” Church recalled. “All of my dreams went out the window when I found out that I had done a number on my shoulder.”
Church persevered, however, and rather than accepting defeat the then-college sophomore began his transition to becoming a position player. “I decided to start hitting on my own whenever I had downtime from rehabbing or after practice. The rest is history.” As both a pitcher and an outfielder, Church hit .361/.434/.566 with 16 home runs, 24 doubles, 88 RBI and a 1.000 OPS in 102 games over his final three college seasons.
By age 21, Church was selected in the 14th round of the 2000 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft by the Cleveland Indians as an outfielder. Before he ever made his major league debut, though, Church was included in a trade by the Indians to the Montreal Expos for left-handed pitcher Scott Stewart.
“The biggest thing was realizing that baseball is a business,” Church said. “If I wasn’t going to make it in Cleveland, than this was the route I was going to have to take.”
After a brief cup of coffee with the major league club at the end of the 2004 campaign, Church burst onto the scene at the start of his first full season in 2005 after team relocated to Washington. In his first 57 games that year, Church hit .325/.381/.544 with seven home runs, 10 doubles, 28 RBI and a .924 OPS in 177 plate appearances, thrusting himself into early Rookie of the Year conversations. “Once I got my feet wet, I started paying attention to other players’ work ethic and looking at how they prepared day in and day out,” Church said. “Baseball is a game of constant adjustments, so I was always adjusting to whatever task was at hand.”
Church hit a bump in the road, however, when he crashed into the outfield wall at PNC Park in late June, leading to two trips to the disabled list. Over his final 45 games with the Nationals that season, Church was unable to replicate his early success as he batted .231/.315/.352 with two home runs, five doubles, 14 RBI and a .666 OPS in 124 plate appearances.
Over the next two seasons in D.C., Church turned himself into an intriguing player. From 2006-2007, the left-hander hit .273/.354/.482 with 25 home runs, 60 doubles, 105 RBI and an .836 OPS. While the power had yet to come, Church appeared as if he were a player on the rise.
It was in the offseason prior to the 2008 season where Church found himself involved in a trade for the second time, as the Washington Nationals dealt the 29-year-old right fielder–as well as catcher Brian Schneider–to the New York Mets for the highly-touted outfield prospect Lastings Milledge.
After being traded from a struggling Nationals team to a club that finished one game shy of a postseason berth in 2007, Church was excited to finally play for a contender. “I was pumped to go to New York, put on that Mets uniform and hit in that lineup,” he said. “It was very appealing. Who wouldn’t want to play on the biggest stage?”
Prior to even making his Mets debut, Church found himself injured again as he collided with Marlon Anderson on a play in Spring Training, leading to a fairly severe concussion. Looking back on the incident, Church admits that he has no memory of the collision itself, but continues to praise the way the team’s medical staff handled the situation.
Once the season began, Church appeared to suffer from no ill-effects from the concussion whatsoever. The Mets new right fielder quickly became one of the team’s most important players as Church batted .311/.379/.534 with nine home runs, seven doubles, 32 RBI and a .913 OPS in his first 42 games of the 2008 campaign.
“I really felt like I was going to take off,” Church said. “Everything was great on and off the field, I was bigger and stronger… And hitting between Jose Reyes and David Wright helped a ton.”
Then came May 20, 2008. A day that forever changed the course of Church’s baseball career, and subsequently his life. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves, the Mets found themselves down to their final pair of outs at Turner Field. As he was trying to break-up a game-ending double play off the bat of Damien Easley, Church’s head viciously collided with the knee of Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar. The impact knocked off Church’s helmet, where his head then slammed into the ground and dragged across the dirt. Church laid on the ground motionless for a moment, before he was eventually escorted off of the field and into the trainer’s room.
“I don’t remember anything leading up to or during the collision,” Church admitted. “I came to, sitting on the trainer’s table.”
Not only does Church still not remember to collision to this day, he also revealed that he’s never once seen the play on video. “I still haven’t watched the replay,” Church said. “I probably never will. I don’t want to be reminded of the downfall and eventual ending of my career.”
The Mets were publicly criticized for their handling of Church’s health, as they had the 29-year-old board a plane to Colorado just two days later. Over the next couple weeks, Church wound up appearing in seven total games before the Mets eventually placed him on the 15-day disabled list due to post-concussion symptoms.
After suffering the concussion on May 20th, Church would wind up hitting .247/.317/.346 with three home runs, seven doubles, 17 RBI, 46 strikeouts and a .662 OPS in the final 49 games he appeared in during the 2008 season, and was placed on the disabled list twice due to the injury.
“I was never the same,” Church said. “Every day was a grind to get up, go to work and try to perform at the highest level. And what really crushed me was knowing how I felt, knowing that I wasn’t the same player. I felt like I was hurting the team and letting them down if I didn’t play. I didn’t want to be that guy who doesn’t play because he’s hurt … So I played. Probably not the smartest thing I could have done, looking back.”
While Church continued to struggle, he was still an important piece for a Mets team that was fighting for their playoff lives down the stretch of the season. Church delivered big-time with a grand slam against the Milwaukee Brewers—whom the Mets were battling for a Wild Card spot—on September 3, leading to an eventual sweep.
Perhaps his most memorable moment in a Mets uniform came later that month, though, as New York was down to the final out of their season and at Shea Stadium, which was closing it’s doors at year’s end. Trailing the Florida Marlins by a score of 4-2 and with a runner on first base, Church was tasked with standing in the batter’s box as the tying run.
As he swung the bat, it appeared as if Church had delivered one of the most dramatic home runs in the history of the franchise. As the Shea faithful rose in their seats, the ball eventually died on the warning track and into the glove of center fielder Cameron Maybin. The season was over, the Mets came up one game shy of the postseason for the second consecutive year, and Shea Stadium was no more.
“It didn’t hit me until I got down to first base,” Church recalled. “I remember them catching the ball at the wall and as I touched first I stopped on top of the bag and I caught myself almost tearing up. I was definitely hoping it was going to get out.”
“I never wanted to make the last out,” Church continued. “I felt horrible. I felt like I let a lot of Mets fans down. I loved Shea.”
But while the 2008 Mets season had come to an end, Church’s concussion symptoms were only just beginning. “I was still in a fog and didn’t feel right,” Church remembered. “I spent many days forgetting things, I noticed I’d get agitated easily and anytime I worked out I still felt dizzy and sick.” Still, Church pushed forward and was the Mets starting right fielder on Opening Day for the 2009 season.
In an extra-inning West Coast affair against the Dodgers, the Mets appeared to have taken the lead on a triple off the bat of Angel Pagan. On an appeal, however, Church was ruled to have missed third base and was called out, taking the run off the board and eventually leading to a 3-2 loss. Unfortunately, this remains one of the moments Mets fans remember Church for the most, although he remembers the play differently.
“I touched it!” Church exclaimed. “I didn’t round and step on the corner of the bag properly, but I felt the right side of my cleat touch it. It was unfortunate that we lost the game, but we were really screwed on that call.”
As the season moved forward, Church was hitting for average but his power was noticeably down. By early July, the Mets right fielder was batting .280 but had only hit two home runs and driven in 22 runners in his first 68 games.
“I wasn’t right,” Church said. “I may have looked fine on the outside but inside I was a mess. Every day I’d wake up hoping that this feeling I was having would somehow be gone. It never went away.” Only July 10, the Mets decided to make a move and trade the struggling Church to the Braves for outfielder Jeff Francoeur.
Shortly after the deal, Mets manager Jerry Manuel appeared to publicly question Church’s toughness, saying that third baseman David Wright—who suffered a concussion that August—was a “different animal” than Church, who wound up missing nearly half of the 2008 season due to concussion issues. At the time, Church referred to Manuel’s comments as a “low blow” and didn’t wish to comment any further as part of this story. Splitting time between the Mets and Braves, Church finished the 2009 campaign hitting .273/.338/.384 with four home runs, 28 doubles, 40 RBI and a .722 OPS—the second lowest mark of his career.
Entering the 2010 season as a 31-year-old with the Pirates, Church continued to feel the aftereffects of the concussion, nearly two full years after his collision in Atlanta. “2010 was rough,” Church recalled. “It was the end of my playing career. Looking back on what I went through, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Church’s drastic decline continued with the Pirates and Diamondbacks–who he was traded to midseason–in 2010, as the right fielder batted .201/.265/.352 with five home runs, 16 doubles, 25 RBI and a .616 OPS while striking out in 27.3 percent of his plate appearances. It was after this difficult season where the veteran realized that he could no longer play the game he once loved so much.
“I knew I was done,” Church said.” The love and passion for the game was gone. I didn’t want to put my body through the whole grind again. It wasn’t fair to me or my family.”
“Teams definitely stayed away from me and I don’t blame them,” Church continued. “I could have went to Spring Training with a few clubs, but my heart just wasn’t into it anymore. I was damaged goods and I wasn’t going to get any better.”
Church acknowledges that the concussion he sustained in 2008 against the Braves marked the end of his career, and the numbers certainly seem to support that belief. Prior to the collision, Church hit .276/.352/.472 with 44 home runs, 83 doubles, 185 RBI, 123 walks, 292 strikeouts and an .825 OPS in 389 career games. In 265 games after the collision, however, Church batted .245/.311/.365 with 12 home runs, 51 doubles, 82 RBI, 65 walks, 167 strikeouts and a .676 OPS to close out his career.
“I haven’t been the same person since,” Church said of his concussion. “I used to enjoy watching baseball, and now the only thing I’ll watch is my son’s little league games.”
As he evaluates the state of how concussions are handled in Major League Baseball, Church recognizes that strides have been made today that could have helped him years ago while he was still playing. “The game has since made the necessary changes,” Church said. “Unfortunately, it was a little too late for me.
Looking back on what he wishes the Mets had done differently back in 2008, Church had just one thing to say: “I should have never gotten on that plane.”
Today, now six years removed from his baseball career, Church spends most his retirement fishing and golfing, as well as spending time volunteering at his town’s local high school. And, even after everything he went through, he still hopes to one day return to the game of baseball. “I’d love to work with an organization,” Church said. “If someone needs an outfield coach… I’m game.”
After such a vicious injury and the apparent mishandling of the situation, it would make sense for a person to be bitter and jaded over what happened to them. But not Ryan Church. “I was dealt a horrible hand to play with after the concussions, but I did everything I possibly could,” he said. “I hope to be remembered as a grinder. Someone who loved to put on that uniform, go out and entertain, regardless of how I felt.”
“I gave it my all.”
Photo Credit: Michael G. Baron