Out of left field

Once a minor league baseball player, Jake Shaffer is trading in his cleats for a white coat

Former Minor League Player PhotoThey say there’s no crying in baseball, but it was certainly an emotional day for Jake Shaffer and his family when he walked off the field for the last time. It marked the end of years chasing a major league dream that just wasn’t destined to happen and the beginning of another chapter in his life.

Shaffer, a medical student at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine entering his third year, was once a standout high school player in Athol, Massachusetts. Routinely scouted by professional teams, the plan was to enter the major leagues right out of high school.

But the dream would be postponed after a brutal shoulder injury during a slide to first base. Instead of going on to the big time, Shaffer would undergo Bankart surgery to fix a dislocated shoulder.

“I was a senior in high school at that point. It was the first considerable injury I had, and it sort of opened my eyes to more than just baseball,” Shaffer said. “I saw all of the doctors and nurses who helped me and what they do, and I realized it was possible to do something great that wasn’t baseball.”

Draft day came and went without his name getting called, and Shaffer found himself playing baseball for Northern Kentucky University. He was an outfielder, keen to the left but sometimes playing center.

During his freshman year, he played through the pain of an injury to his throwing arm and would go on to have Tommy John surgery to reconstruct his ulnar collateral ligament. The surgery would shake Shaffer’s mindset. He began to realize that he needed to focus more on his studies and that baseball wouldn’t last forever.

“That second surgery, I started to veer off baseball a little bit,” Shaffer said. “I needed to start seeing myself as looking at college and life outside of baseball. I knew I’d continue in baseball, but I saw that I needed to pursue something else, that this might not be my reality anymore.”

Still, following his junior season with the team, Shaffer took one last chance when he accepted a draft offer by the Seattle Mariners. It was an incredible experience, one so much different than his first time around.

“It was awesome, certainly a dream that had been realized. Not being drafted the first time was disappointing and a time for growth. Three or so years later, getting drafted was a nice experience, realizing a dream that had been worked on for some time,” Shaffer said. “But you tend to go on to what’s next and you shift gears. There’s always something next, and it made me realize to enjoy what’s happened and not worry about the next thing, to enjoy living in the moment more and not always focus on the next goal.”

He played minor league baseball for five years, making stops with a number of AA teams, but most prominently with the Mariners organization and the St. Louis Cardinals. Moving around, living in different cities, and routinely meeting new teammates taught Shaffer a lot.

He learned the importance of controlling your emotions as a professional athlete. In baseball, he found, it wasn’t if you would struggle but when.

“How you conduct yourself is important. Staying on an even keel is an important attribute of being a pro,” Shaffer said. “In that arena, you’ve also got kids and families around watching. You want to conduct yourself in an upright, appropriate way.”

Shaffer found the value of silent concentration before games, and saw the value of a routine in being successful. His days at the ballpark were so regimented that they all began to blur together. He only knew it was Sunday because he had to show up at 10 a.m. instead of 2 p.m.

Teams typically played late games, so his sleep schedule shifted a few hours later. When he played in a Texas league, he could catch up on sleep during 12-hour bus rides between towns. He got one day off every two weeks.

There was always a practice session before a game. Shaffer would whittle away the downtime by playing cards or shooting the breeze with a teammate. “It was a ton more downtime than I’ll probably ever experience again in my life,” Shaffer said. “You’ve got to stay relaxed and easy going through it all to play well. The biggest thing is the downtime.”

But the years passed quickly despite the slow stretches, and Shaffer found himself praying with his wife about their next move. He had certainly done well in baseball, but a ticket to the major leagues seemed less likely than it once had. The Shaffers also were thinking of starting a family.

Over time, they began to feel a sense of peace about the decision and, in 2012, his very last game had come. The break wasn’t easy, as he and his wife had gotten used to managing their lives around professional sports, but it was time.

“My last game, my wife comes on the field wearing her sunglasses. We were a little emotional and crying and one of my buddies, a hitting coach who’d kind of been through the same thing, came up and encouraged us and told us it’d be OK,” Shaffer said. “It was what we needed. God provided a way for us to step out of what you might call our identity. And pro baseball becomes that way for some people, but my wife and I are reminded that our identity is in Christ.”

He went back to Northern Kentucky University and completed two bachelor’s degrees, one in biology and another in chemistry. Not long after, he was accepted to the class of 2019 at the Boonshoft School of Medicine.

Now entering his third year, Shaffer routinely volunteers with the Miami Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association that provides information and support services to families dealing with the disease. He helps out when he can, often manning phones and lending an ear to many who just need someone to listen. It’s a struggle to balance it all as a married student who commutes to school from Cincinnati while also raising a young daughter.

“The times you’re studying, you have to optimize them. When you’re not, be present with your family. Realize that with a spouse you kind of both are going to medical school,” Shaffer said. His wife, Elizabeth, is a school teacher. “It’s a partnership, and my wife’s included. You have to have open lines of communication, realizing that you both are going to medical school in a sense. You’re both sacrificing.”

Since he hasn’t yet had much time working in hospitals, Shaffer is looking forward to clerkships so that he can learn about different specialties. Though sports medicine seems like the obvious choice, he is leaning toward internal medicine, because of the potential to specialize later on, and he has a strong interest in primary care. But he is keeping an open mind.

“Even when I was interviewing for medical school, I wasn’t dead set on doing sports medicine,” Shaffer said. “One way that my baseball career influenced me was showing me that whatever I do with my life I want to be passionate about it. That’s one reason why I went to medical school. Whether I’m in sports medicine, family medicine or another specialty, going to work every day being inspired is the most important thing to me.”

— Daniel Kelly

 

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