By Nick Pierce
Special to the Martinsville Bulletin
Most professional baseball players will say they’re grateful for the lives they live. Getting paid to play the game they’ve loved since childhood and chasing the dream of being a major leaguer are not opportunities every ballplayer gets to experience.
However, in the case of Danville Braves pitcher Kenny Wells, he’s just grateful to be living.
Two years before Wells would sign his first professional contract, and even before he pitched in his first collegiate game, the right-hander endured a near-death experience that would forever change his outlook on life and the game he gets to play.
On Feb.7, 2017, Wells joined his Seton Hill baseball teammates for a preseason scrimmage. It was a cold day on the turf field in western Pennsylvania, but the most chilling instance took place during a routine moment. After Wells completed his warm-up pitches on the mound, his catcher went to make a throw to second base.
“I ducked to get out of the way,” Wells said. “He went to throw down to second and it went right into the back of my head. I went to the ground, but it more so just scared me at the time.”
Despite the fear in the moment, and perhaps still in shock, Wells hopped up almost immediately and began jogging off the field. His concerned teammates summoned the athletic trainer who examined him and put him through a series of tests to check for a concussion.
“She was asking me to count down from 100 by sevens and to say my A-B-C’s backwards. I was like, ‘I can’t do that right now’. I probably still can’t do that right now,” Wells said with a laugh.
“They shut me down that day and the next day they told me to take concussion tests in the morning.”
Wells passed concussion protocol early the next morning. He had no symptoms, no sickness, no nausea or headache, so he went back to the field. He wound up pitching three innings in a team scrimmage one day after the accident and even said he, “threw pretty well.” However, the morning of Feb. 9, 2017, he knew something was off.
“We had an early morning practice at 6 a.m. or 6:30, and we had just gotten started. I wasn’t feeling myself at all,” Wells said. “I just felt sick. My head was hurting. It felt like I had a migraine or something.”
The team’s head athletic trainer advised Wells to rest. He was then scheduled to see the team doctor later that day. Concussion symptoms usually occur much sooner than the time frame in which Wells was experiencing his sickness, so there was reason for concern.
When Wells returned from the field to his dorm room he blacked out. His roommate and teammate, Brian Dabney, returned to the room to find Wells convulsing and having seizures on the floor.
“Thank God, he forgot his books,” Wells explained. “It’s amazing how he took what was happening to me and responded so calmly. He called 911 and made it easy for them to take me to the hospital.”
Wells was taken to Westmoreland Hospital, located near Seton Hill’s campus. He was suffering from a brain bleed. The trauma caused by the accident had left a bruise on the brain that had clotted. However, the morning that Wells felt sick he had taken Ibuprofen. That dose likely thinned the blood enough that it began to leak out. Lying in a comatose state, doctors did not know if Wells would survive, or if he did survive what type of life he would have after.
“They were telling my parents they didn’t know if I would have cognitive functions ever again,” Wells said.
Soon after arriving to Westmoreland, Wells was transferred to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he was placed in intensive care. Under normal circumstances, Wells would’ve been transported by Life Flight, but on this day it was snowing too hard for the helicopter to risk the trip. Wells was taken to Pittsburgh instead by ambulance, more than an hour drive.
Allegheny General was better equipped to handle the possible surgery Wells could need, which involved removing part of his skull to allow the swelling of the brain to subside. In the midst of all the uncertainty, while doctors waited to make a decision, Wells opened his eyes.
“I remember I woke up and said, ‘Hi Mom. Hi Dad, where am I?’” he said. “I was so freaked out at the time. It seems cliché but I heard doctors saying that I was a walking miracle. They were baffled.”
About a month later, after lots of rest, Wells took another miraculous leap forward by pitching in his first game for Seton Hill while wearing a protective helmet.
“I blew a save,” Wells said. “I remember the broadcasters saying, ‘Who really cares?’ It’s a blessing that he’s pitching right now. I was very determined to get back on the field. I didn’t want some stupid accident that you can’t really control to make me not be able to play the game I love.”
That season, Wells went on to pitch in 16 games out of the bullpen, going 7-2 and recording three saves. His low 90s fastball and competitive spirit on the mound later drew the attention of Atlanta Braves’ scouts.
On July 3 of this year, Wells signed a minor- league contract with the Braves, who assigned him to rookie-level Danville.
“He shows up every day and works extremely hard,” said Jason Stanford, Danville Braves pitching coach. “He’s a big time competitor, which I absolutely love. He’s a different cat.”
Despite that different personality, Wells has fit in well with his new teammates. Stanford joked Wells’ nickname is ‘Thing 2’, a reference to the Dr. Seuss character from ‘The Cat in the Hat’. (The title of ‘Thing 1’ belongs to fellow D-Braves pitcher Justin Yeager).
So far this season, Wells has pitched in eight games for Danville, recording one save with a 7.00 ERA.