An Obstacle Fuels a Comeback
Flashback to early April of 2017 - that's when Blake Tiberi was preparing for his first full season of Minor League Baseball with the Columbia Fireflies. Tiberi was productive from the start and recorded two hits along with three runs on Opening Day. However, that was the first of only five games the Kentucky native played in all season.
"I had been dealing with arm soreness over the years, but it was never too serious," Blake explained.
Tiberi dealt with pain at times and occasionally experienced tendonitis, but it was never to the point where further examination was necessary. That was the case until about his fourth game into the 2017 season with the Fireflies.
"I was taking batting practice one day in early April and it (my arm) just hurt and I could barely swing a bat," Tiberi reflected.
Blake's father, Rich, was in constant communication with his son throughout this difficult situation.
"This was something he'd never experienced before," said Rich. "It had been normal in the past for him to feel sore after throwing, but at this point it seemed like the ligament just gave out."
On May 3, 2017, Blake Tiberi underwent Tommy John surgery and ultimately missed the remainder of the season. Tiberi's day in surgery, as one might imagine, was stressful for anyone close to this star player.
"Blake flew up to New York for the surgery and told me he wanted to just go by himself," Rich described. "The procedure took place around 8 o'clock in the morning and it lasted longer than expected so I called the hospital to check on him. It doesn't really matter what you are in there for, there's always that concern of everything going well. The surgery lasted about three hours, but it felt like it was 24 hours."
The surgery was a success and a full recovery was expected, according to doctors.
"I had an arm brace for about five weeks and then was able to start rehabbing," said Blake. "I was fully committed to coming back as soon as possible. I was rehabbing three to five days a week from July until February."
Tiberi spent a majority of the offseason back at the University of Louisville, where he used to play ball.
"[Blake] was with our baseball program all fall while taking an internship to help get his degree," said Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell. "It was awesome. He is already a great player, but he could also be a phenomenal coach down the road the way he loves and cares about the game."
However, when Blake arrived at Louisville as a student athlete in 2014, it took a while for him to ultimately showcase his potential.
"Blake did not come into our program with any sense of entitlement," Coach McDonnell explained. "He wasn't promised anything and took full advantage of his redshirt season his first year on campus."
Coach McDonnell recalls when Blake asked to leave the team early during his redshirt season in 2014. Louisville was scheduled to participate in the NCAA baseball tournament, but Tiberi was slated to play in the New England Collegiate Baseball League that summer.
"I told him absolutely, without a doubt," McDonnell responded. "He would rather get up there and play than just wear a Louisville jersey during a regional game knowing it was still his redshirt season. I respected that and then what do you know a couple months later he won MVP of the league."
Tiberi continued to improve and the next summer not only earned a spot on a team in the Cape Cod Baseball League, one of the most prestigious summer leagues in the country, but was also named an all-star. Still, there was some criticism in regards to his potential.
"I went up to visit Blake and I even had a coach up there tell me at the time he didn't think Blake could start on the infield at Louisville the upcoming season," said Coach McDonnell.
Tiberi started 64 games the following season with the Cardinals in 2016. The infielder posted a .340 batting average (17th in the ACC), launched 10 home runs, and was second on the team with 51 RBIs. He proved to any of the doubters that he belonged on the big stage.
After injury, the 23-year-old is now back to his old ways, turning heads in his second crack with the Fireflies this year. This started on Opening Day 2018 when he collected three hits - one being a home run.
"It was a really great feeling getting back out there," Blake said. "There was a big crowd and I had some butterflies for sure. It was a special feeling for me."
Fireflies pitching coach Jonathan Hurst and hitting coach Ender Chavez are already impressed with what the former Louisville Cardinal brings to the table.
"He was unbelievable down in spring training," said Hurst. "It seemed like he would get on base every time he had the chance to."
"I really like what I am seeing from Blake," Chavez echoed. "He is one hitter to keep an eye on this summer. There is no question he's got the talent.
As soon as Tiberi arrived in Columbia just before the season, he was asked what people should know about him. The infielder chuckled and said, "I have a new arm and I'm ready to go."