On The Road Back From a Fractured Jaw, Willie Calhoun is Lauded For His Work Ethic and Maturity
The sky is the limit for Willie Calhoun.
In a conference call with Texas Rangers hitting coach Luis Ortiz on Thursday, he had nothing but high praise for the 25 year-old outfielder.
"He’s just going to continue to get better," Ortiz said with a smile. "I was so proud of him last week."
Last week marked a significant milestone for Calhoun because it was the first time he took live batting practice since he being struck in jaw by a 95 mph fastball from Dodgers' hurler Julio Urias on March 8.
It was a stomach-churning moment that Calhoun himself doesn't want to relive.
“I saw it one time in the hospital," Calhoun told InsideTheRangers.com. "I don’t like to see it because I don’t remember much from that. I think if I were to remember a little bit about it, I would be more hesitant to get back in the box. I think it’s better if I just don’t even look at it anymore.”
Calhoun sported a C-Flap face protector throughout the 2019 season, which is an extension of the batting helmet that covers the jaw and helps protect players from the exact situation that Calhoun faced that day. Curiously, Calhoun stopped wearing one during spring training this year.
“We got new helmets and I couldn’t find a helmet that fit me and that I liked," Calhoun recalled. "It sucks because literally two days before they were asking me if I wanted a C-Flap. I remember telling them that big league pitchers are getting paid millions of dollars and they should know where the ball is going and there’s no way they should be missing and hitting me in the face."
Now with a metal plate permanently inserted in his jaw, Calhoun's helmet will undoubtedly be equipped with the C-Flap.
“The doctor said that it's mandatory," Calhoun said. "He told me it’s in my best interest to wear it for the rest of my career and not take any chances with it. It’s unlucky that it happened and hopefully it doesn’t happen again.”
Roughly 11 weeks stood between that scary moment at Surprise Stadium and when Calhoun stepped back in the box for live batting practice at Globe Life Field. A number of Rangers that live in the area—Calhoun included—are working out at the new home of the Rangers under social distancing protocols.
"He took the first pitches from [Taylor] Hearn—a left-hander with nasty stuff—and he was in there like nothing ever happened," Ortiz said of Calhoun. "It was just incredible how most guys are like ‘I’m not going to face Taylor, I need to see some other pitchers before that’ and he’s like, ‘I’ll go.’"
I asked Taylor Hearn if he's heard similar rumblings or groans from Rangers' hitters.
“I’ve had guys mess around and tell me that they didn’t," Hearn laughed. "If Luis said it, I guess it’s true.”
Then it must be a compliment, right?
“Yeah, I guess so," Hearn chuckled.
All joking aside, Hearn knew it was Calhoun's first time seeing live pitches in over two months. Similar to Ortiz, Hearn had nothing but praise for Calhoun stepping back in the batter's box.
“Honestly, I was just happy to see him back in there," Hearn said. "He’s really fearless. That takes a lot of confidence to get the feel back. He was in there taking some nice hacks and took some pretty good cuts off me.”
"It’s just funny because I told myself I wasn’t going to face Taylor, but when it came down to it, that was the first guy I faced," Calhoun said. “I told [the hitting coaches] I really don’t care who I face. I’ll face a lefty or righty...I’m always competitive."
The road back for Calhoun began the day after his jaw was fractured. He underwent surgery at a local hospital in the Phoenix area and had the metal plate inserted to stabilize the fracture. He was able to avoid having his jaw wired shut.
Only 18 days later, Calhoun was cleared for daily workouts and baseball activity. By early April, he was cleared of all physical restrictions. Under normal circumstances, Calhoun might have missed a short amount of time at the start of the season. The hiatus caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic has created a unique circumstance where Calhoun can return without losing any playing time.
Now with the baseball season seemingly on the horizon, Rangers players are beginning to ramp things back up again. Despite Calhoun being the competitive guy he is, he was taken aback by how quickly he adjusted to seeing live pitches again.
"Honestly, I thought it was going to be a lot worse than it played out," Calhoun said. "I got in there and it felt normal. I wasn’t hesitant at all. My timing was obviously a little off just because I hadn’t seen a live pitch since March.”
Even so, Calhoun wasn't overwhelmingly satisfied looking back at his first day.
“I didn’t feel good about my at-bats the first day, but the second day, I felt really good about them," Calhoun said. "It’s come along good. I’m excited.”
That maturity didn't come easily. After Calhoun was acquired when the Rangers traded beloved starter Yu Darvish to the Dodgers, his tenure with the Rangers has had a series of ups and downs. After a disappointing 2018 season, Calhoun worked hard to improve as a player and as a person. 2019 saw its fair share of tests, but Calhoun finished strong and is now poised to be a key piece on the Rangers roster.
"The way he’s going about his work and the way he’s maturing daily, the sky is the limit—especially as a hitter," Ortiz said. "With the pride that he’s taking on his defense, he’s the only one that will be an obstacle in his future. He’s going to do some things in the game that are going to take people by surprise."
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