Ryan Hoar plays Frontier baseball on badly hurt knee
Ryan Hoar of Frontier Regional, right, scores on a hit from Eddie Tsai as Sean Quill catches the throw Monday at Frontier.
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Ryan Hoar of Frontier, right, shoots against Keith Natale of Smith Academy Tuesday at Smith.
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Watching Ryan Hoar smoothly turn a double play, it’s impossible to tell what he’s dealing with this spring.
He’ll probably need a knee replacement by the time he’s 40, but he still busts it down the line to beat out an infield hit.
Despite playing with an injury that sidelines multimillion-dollar athletes, the Frontier Regional star shortstop concedes nothing on the field.
“I’m pretty much playing the same way I always have, and I never feel I made the wrong decision, because if I chose not to play I’d be so unhappy,” he said. “But there are plenty of days when I don’t think I can make it much further, much less the end of the season. I know I’ll pay for it down the line physically, but I need to play.”
The senior blew out his left knee for the third time last November and the second time in 2012. He doesn’t have an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) because it’s ripped away and his meniscus is seriously damaged.
Basically, Hoar’s performed athletically without a left knee for the past six months and counting. He describes the feeling as having rubber bands holding the knee together.
“It’s absolutely remarkable that he’s able to play through this,” Frontier ace pitcher Peter Watroba said. “I’ve played basketball and baseball with him, and he’s always had some sort of trouble with that knee, but this season’s something completely different.”
Another surgery and the subsequent recovery time would have meant the end of his high school athletic career. With time already lost pursuing his passion, Hoar simply wouldn’t accept that fate.
“I already missed my entire freshman year of sports when I tore the knee the first time,” he said. “All the work I’d put in the last couple years was leading to this year, and I wasn’t about to sit out and watch.”
As a freshman, Hoar tore the knee for the first time playing football. He reinjured the same knee twice more playing basketball. The second injury occurred after his junior year. All told, he’s torn his ACL three times, his meniscus twice and also had a staph infection.
If the injury had happened earlier in his junior year, Hoar likely would have made the opposite decision.
“I’d never advocate this for another athlete,” he said. “If you’re a senior and you won’t play sports again, then maybe you should consider it. But for a freshman or a sophomore, no way. Not worth it.”
This past winter, he helped guide the boys basketball team to the Western Massachusetts Division 3 Tournament. He averaged 6.7 points per game, roughly the same average as his junior season.
But he had a feeling switching from the hardwood to the diamond would pose a difficult challenge.
“Baseball is harder with the knee because in basketball you’re moving around all the time,” Hoar said. “In baseball you’ll be standing around and the movements are so sudden. And a lot of our season is played in the cold spring, which doesn’t help.”
The decision to play this spring has certainly been worth it for Hoar and the Red Hawks, who just completed a 14-6 regular season and earned the No. 3 seed in the Western Masschusetts Division 3 Tournament. Last season’s sectional runner-up begins the postseason at 4 p.m. today against No. 14 Putnam (12-8) in South Deerfield.
First-year Frontier coach Chuck Holt was aware of Hoar’s situation when he took the job. But the baseball lifer still could hardly believe his eyes.
“It’s pretty courageous,” Holt said. “You can tell the pain is there, and I’m completely impressed on many levels. I’m 40 and I’ve played baseball since I was 3, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The pure statistics more than back up Holt’s point. Playing all 20 regular-season games, Hoar hit .429 and reached base in exactly half of his at-bats. He scored 17 runs, drove in 14 and blasted a pair of home runs. Both homers went over a fence, but he showed he can run the bases effectively by stealing 12 bases in 14 attempts.
“To be able to adjust and not lose a lot of production shows what a tremendous player he is,” Holt said. “I’d never seen him play before, but if I didn’t know about it I don’t think I could tell. He’s played that well. I figured it would slow him a few steps and maybe it did, but it’s hard to tell.”
“It’s hard to say what my stats would be if fully healthy, but I’m not at all disappointed in my season so far,” Ryan said. “I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do, and it’s kind of too bad the season will be over soon because I’m just now used to playing with it.”
Sophomore Tim Hoar has the unique perspective of being not only Ryan’s teammate, but his brother. He may be the only person who’s not surprised.
“I don’t know many kids who have the same determination as Ryan does, and that’s the way he’s been his entire life,” Tim said. “He doesn’t want anything to ever keep him down and prevent him from playing. He just wants to have a great senior season to wrap up his high school career. It takes a ton of guts to do this, but Ryan always fights through.”
Both Hoar brothers said their family was not 100 percent in agreement with Ryan’s choice, but they’re certainly behind him.
“They’re not big fans of my decision, but they’ve all been completely supportive,” Ryan said. “They know I wouldn’t be happy on the sidelines. And everyone helps me out with ice or braces or ointment — whatever I need.”
On a scale to 10, Hoar said his baseline pain level is a three, just from walking and doing day-to-day activities. The number shoots up to a seven or eight during a game or practice. He also admitted rainy weather plays havoc with the knee due to the onset of arthritis.
“It hurts more and more every day, then the other knee hurts because I have to overcompensate,” Ryan said. “The sad part is that I’m pretty much used to it at this point. I try to ignore it he best I can and try to fight my way through the season.”
In addition to the pain, once every two-to-three weeks the knee will simply pop out on him, even if he does nothing technically wrong. Hoar does his best to not let these dislocations become a distraction.
“I try not to think about it popping out, because if I think I’ll try too hard to protect it and that’s when I become vulnerable,” Ryan said. “I feel if I go out and play my natural game, that’s the best way to manage it. But it’s something always in the back of my mind — when’s it going to happen, how bad will it hurt this time?”
The necessary adjustments to his game have been made, such as shading up the middle at shortstop with limited mobility to his left.
In pregame batting practice, he’s drilled himself to keep his front foot planted instead of twisting it outward, as was customary earlier in his career.
“In the field I’ve made the necessary adjustments, so that part of the game isn’t as much of a challenge,” Ryan said. “But at the plate I have to think about how I need to plant and twist. I need to concentrate all the time on stepping right toward the pitcher.”
Watroba, who went 5-3 with a 2.12 earned run average this season, can fully count on the defensive support of his longtime friend.
“I still have complete confidence in him at shortstop,” Watroba said. “He really hasn’t lost much range and continues to play at a really high level.”
Maintaining that level of play now means additional work before and after games. At least twice a day Hoar visits the school gym to ice, then returns after every game. A knee brace is his constant companion. And he needs to do calisthenics by himself to loosen up.
Hoar is scheduled to undergo preliminary surgery on July 27 to fill in the holes previously drilled in other operations. The ACL and meniscus are scheduled to be repaired again during Christmas break.
“This time I’ll be getting a donor’s ACL, and I hope it heals better this time,” he said. “They already used my hamstring tendon and a patella tendon, and for some reason it just didn’t heal right.”
In the fall, Hoar will attend Greenfield Community College. He dreams of a career in coaching. He will take a full year off from playing sports and see how well he heals.
But over the next couple weeks, all thoughts of pain and the upcoming surgery can be put aside.
“The adrenaline once the playoffs start will certainly get me going and rejuvenate me,” Hoar said. “We’re looking at a good seed and have the team to make a deep run. So I won’t be thinking much about the knee, because we all want to win so badly.”
When asked if he’s someone his teammates rally around, Hoar said he hopes so but isn’t sure. But Holt held no such doubts.
“He’s very much an inspiration for the rest of the team,” Holt said. “And if he wasn’t in the middle of our lineup and leading the infield, I don’t think we’d have quite the same team chemistry. It would have been a huge piece lost.”
Michael Wilkinson can be reached at email@example.com.