From the very first time Joey Hornstein picked up a baseball, he was pitching.
“When I was younger, my dad was like ‘Play baseball.’ I was like yeah, I play baseball,” Hornstein recalls. “So we use to play in the yard and I’ll pitch to him. … I pitched all of the time when I was younger, that’s the only thing I did was pitch.
“I pitched every game. That’s probably why my arm went out.”
A story published by "The Washington Post" in 2016 relayed statistics about pitching among youth baseball players as reported by the book The Arm by Jeff Passan, specifically as it related to Tommy John surgery. According to the American Sports Medicine Institute, kids who pitched more than 100 innings during a calendar year were 3 1/2 times as likely to get injured as pitchers who did less throwing. Also studies show that kids who pitch in games more than eight months a year are five times as likely as other pitchers to need surgery.
Tommy John surgery repairs or replaces the elbow ligaments connecting the upper part of the throwing arm with the lower part. Hornstein did suffer ligament damage during his sophomore year but fortunately, it wasn’t severe enough to require surgery.
“I went to see some doctors,” said Hornstein. “They told me that I have some torn ligaments and it would have to heal on its own and gradually it’ll get better.”
Hornstein may not have been able to use his arm to pitch for the time being but he was able to use it for something else that has brought him state wide accolades elsewhere — carrying the football.
Over his final two seasons toting the pill inside of Joe Roller Field as the running back for the Firebirds football team, Hornstein has rushed for consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and combined for nearly 20 touchdowns. He has been selected all-state both seasons and was recently chosen to participate in the annual East-West Shrine Bowl this summer.
And it was on the football field where Firebirds second year head baseball coach Brent Luehring first saw Hornstein.
“Watching him play football as a junior, seeing the type of athlete that he is, I was instantly drawn to him. Then I was talking to my assistants and they were like, ‘Yeah. He plays baseball.’ So I got excited about that,” Luehring said.
Luehring continued. “My assistants did mention that he had arm problems so last year when I got him in January for some open gym I just told him, ‘We’re not going to throw you at all. You know your threshold. We’re going to run you out to centerfield everyday and that’s how it’s going to be.’”
And just like seeing a linebacker in the hole, Hornstein had to make a sudden cut. He had to adjust to the audible that was given to him. He went from pitcher-shortstop to playing in the outfield. And he took the ball and, well, ran with it.
“I like it out there,” Hornstein said about playing centerfield. “It seemed like a good spot for me. I like it out there … catching balls.”
Gil Scott-Heron famously sang, “It might not be such a bad idea if I never, if I never went home again.” Hornstein got the opportunity to do just that.
On April 18th, Hornstein was called to start in the non-conference game of the doubleheader against Fargo South. He pitched two no-hit innings and struck out two. For the first time in two years, he was back at the spot where he grew accustomed to as a child. He was back home.
“It felt good. It kinda felt like old times. It felt good to be back out there pitching again,” Hornstein said.
Gone are the days of being part of a pitching rotation. Hornstein’s role has changed, much as his baseball career since the injury. Any opportunity he gets on the mound would be as a closer and he’s perfectly OK with that.
“I like being a closer. In my mind, it’s just that I get to pitch again no matter if I’m starting or closing. It’s just awesome to be able to pitch again,” Hornstein said.
Chris Harris can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @ChrisHarris_DLJ