Living in his honor
Kevin Hughes overcomes death of dad and season-ending surgery to take the mound
Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 13, 2014 23:02
For Hughes, those are memories of his dad trying – without success – to get him to work in the garage. The two often played basketball in the backyard together because Ashley wasn’t as athletic. Hughes’ favorite picture is of his father in a Buffalo Bills T-shirt with an animated facial expression. Hughes says it illustrates his outgoing personality and his love of sports – something the loving son carries on.
Hughes hates losing. His twitter handle is @cantlosehughes.
His senior year of high school, he wanted to win so badly he pushed his arm to its limit, pitching whenever his coach was willing to give him the ball.
Hughes won class perfectionist in high school – the trait is something he sometimes doesn’t even notice about himself. What he does notice is that he won’t do something just for the sake of doing it. Every sport he plays, everything he does, he makes sure he’s the best at it. His competitive nature never dies.
“He wanted the ball, and he wanted to compete,” said head coach Ron Torgalski, regarding his first impression of Hughes. “He wanted to be put in tough situations. You saw early in his career that he wanted to be in the toughest situations he could be in.”
Even away from the diamond, Hughes is competitive. One of his roommates, senior shortstop Mike Scarcello, says he’s ultra competitive about video games when they play in the house.
Hughes jokes that “Can’t Lose” is his alter ego, the person he becomes between the lines.
It’s visible just watching Hughes warm up. In an instant, the inviting smile and friendly greetings fade into an intense, insatiable work ethic. He’s scary.
“I liked his approach to the game,” Torgalski said. “He played hard, his intensity was there and you have to have that if you are going to be a player, you have to be focused. You have to want to succeed and play with that intensity and I really like that with him.”
Hughes leads with his actions, Torgalski said, even though he may not be the loudest player on the team.
But just as quickly as his focus can take over, it can also take a backseat when he’s joking with a teammate.
Hughes was pitching the best game of his life.
The Bulls were playing St. Joe’s outside Philadelphia on March 17, 2012.
Through five innings, he had struck out eight players and allowed just three hits. He hadn’t walked anyone. He felt like he couldn’t get any better.
With a 1-1 count on the first batter in the bottom of the sixth, Hughes threw a 2-seam fastball. Something popped. His arm recoiled.
“I didn’t really feel it in my arm,” Hughes said. “I felt it in my stomach, like the wind got knocked out of me.”
The training staff came out to take a look at Hughes’ arm, but when he tried to throw a warm-up pitch, the ball “went 30 miles per hour,” far slower than his usual pitch speed.
He left the game disappointed; he didn’t want his feeling of dominance to end.
Mary was listening to the game on the radio. The announcers, who were from the opposing school, were commenting on how well Hughes was pitching. When he left the game, she texted him to make sure he was OK.
Hughes reassured her he was fine, and that it was just a precaution to make sure he didn’t injure himself further.
The first doctor he went to confirmed Hughes’ initial thought of minor injury. In practice, he tried to throw but it was painful and he would be forced to stop. He went to get a second opinion.
“My doctor came in and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you tore your UCL,’” Hughes said. “And he said it so matter-of-fact, and I was like, ‘No way – that’s a year – that’s the one.’”
Hughes’ doctor gave him the option to not get the surgery because the UCL isn’t necessary for everyday life, but he wasn’t ready to give up baseball yet. He was going to have his UCL repaired. And he accepted the 12-month recovery time.
Two months following the March 2012 injury, Hughes underwent the surgery.
He called the time he couldn’t play “awkward.” In 2013, he had convinced himself he was going to come back and play after nine months. At times, it looked like he might. Some days, he appeared to be months ahead of schedule; others, he couldn’t throw without pain.
In the end, Hughes and the coaching staff decided he would sit out the 2013 season and come back in 2014. He could only contribute by supporting his teammates as the Bulls had the best season in school history.
When Hughes last left the mound during a game for the Bulls, Buffalo had never been to a Mid-American Conference tournament. Now, they’ve been to two. Three players who were underclassmen then are now the meat of the Bulls’ rotation.
This is a different Buffalo team than it was in March 2012, and Hughes is going to have to earn his way back into a starting spot.
Torgalski sees him taking on a long relief or set-up role, but if any of the starters falter, they know a veteran player with starting experience is there and waiting to take their spot.
As Hughes steps onto the mound in 2014, he’ll bring the same work ethic with which he attacked rehab.
He’s a different person than he was in 2012, but he continues to play for his No. 1 fan. His dad.