Stevie Wilkerson knew before he yanked the glove off his left hand. He felt the pop. A diving catch in right field impressed the judges but also ruined his season before it started.
Wilkerson saw the swelling in his ring finger. The unnatural bending.
He saw months spent on the injured list.
The exact name of the injury is a “boutonniere deformity,” with the joint nearest the knuckle bent toward the palm and the farthest joint bent back.
“It looks as weird as it sounds,” he said.
The euphoria of robbing the Phillies’ Jean Segura in the bottom of the second inning of a July 19 exhibition game faded as soon as Wilkerson stood and examined his hand.
“I felt something that I never really felt before,” he said. “I kind of looked at it and was like, ‘Oh, boy.’ I tried to shake it off. I didn’t know at the time that it was as lengthy of a deal as it’s going to be, but I knew something wasn’t right, for sure.”
The Orioles sent Wilkerson to a hand specialist and manager Brandon Hyde said the super-utility candidate would miss “a significant amount of time.”
His bid to win a job had been destroyed. While catching a sinking line drive in a meaningless game.
The hindsight view is to avoid risking injury and play the short hop.
“I said that out loud,” Wilkerson said. “One of the first people I talked to was Chris Davis and he’s like, ‘A hell of a play, man’ and I said, ‘I should have let that thing drop.’ He said, ‘You don’t let that thing drop. That’s not why you got here. You play the game like you play the game and that’s why you’re where you’re at.’ That helped a little bit.
“But, yeah, maybe I still should have let it drop. I should have opted out of the preseason game.”
A sense of humor is essential as Wilkerson stays at his Sarasota home and awaits his next examination on Monday. He was gaining confidence that he’d return to the 40-man roster and accompany the team to Boston for opening day, with his ability to play the infield and outfield and also pitch in emergencies making him a valuable commodity.
The baseball gods can be cruel and they targeted him again.
“It was really disappointing,” he said. “It brought me to tears for the first few days. It was just another golden opportunity and I was proud of the way that I went about things during the quarantine and our time off, and then when I came back to summer camp I thought I put a pretty good product out there and I was just excited to see what was going to happen and potentially see how it was going to unfold there after the season started. So it was definitely a tough few day, for sure.”
To pull out of his depression, Wilkerson first needed to find his perspective. It’s become a common exercise for everyone during COVID-19.
“There are a lot of people out there who are in much worse situations than I am,” he said. “I’m fortunate in many, many ways. I did have a little pity party for myself for a couple days and played the what-ifs over and over in my head, but when it really comes down to it I’m super fortunate, and I was able to come back to my wife and my dog and my house and there isn’t a lot more that I can ask for.”
Moving to Sarasota proved to be fortunate timing for the Wilkerson family.
“This is home now, so at least it’s nice to have the other team doctors and some personnel around, but obviously the facility hasn’t been open down here,” he said. “There ain’t a whole lot I can do right now anyway. It’s been weird, but it’s also been a blessing that we made the move here before being sent back because it would have been a little bit more difficult of a situation if we were still in our apartment in Chicago and sent back there. It’s like you’re totally out of the loop instead of a little bit in it.”
Wilkerson hasn’t been cleared for any baseball activities. He’s in shutdown mode other than the follow-up appointments, with the most recent on Aug. 3 in Sarasota.
“Basically, they said that everything’s looking good and on track, but just one of those things that takes a good amount of time,” he said.
“I guess no news is good news. They said everything’s coming back. We got X-rays and you can see the bone starting to fuse back together a little bit, a little cloudiness in between the break, so it’s just time.”
A 60-game season is unforgiving, and an injury of such severity figures to keep him off the field. But he isn’t going to concede it.
Having the goal of playing again this year is providing motivation and comfort.
“I’m not willing to give up on it yet,” he said. “I’ve done everything I can to stand in front of the TV with one hand on the bat and keep my timing as good as I can. Just in hopes of us making the playoffs and after I get this splint off hoping for another speedy recovery on this end.
“I’m not willing to just shut everything down now and end my 2020 campaign yet.”
Staying down in Sarasota hasn’t detached Wilkerson from his teammates as they prepare tonight to begin a three-game series in Philadelphia. They find ways to connect, just as they did during the shutdown.
“I’ve still got a group chat with the guys,” he said. “I’ve been able to stay in touch. And it’s been fun to watch them play, too. They’ve played some good ball so far, especially before last week. Of course I’m not in the trenches, but I don’t feel like a distant bystander, by any means.”