Stokes got his opportunity to play baseball

When he wasn’t selected in the Major League Baseball draft in 2017, it threw Madison Stokes for a loop. For a couple weeks after the draft he avoided contact with people and stewed over not being selected.

Playing professional baseball has always been a part of Stokes’ life plan. He turned down a chance to play professionally out of high school when he was selected in the 40th round by the New York Yankees in order to attend the University of South Carolina.

After three years with the Gamecocks, the last two in which he battled injuries, Stokes was ready for the opportunity to begin his professional career. That opportunity didn’t come. He had hit just .224 before a broken wrist ended his season.

Not getting drafted showed Stokes he wasn’t quite good enough. It showed him he needed to work harder. So he put in the extra work during his senior year. He put more focus into his preparation, including what he ate, how he slept, and being hydrated.

It led to Stokes posting a .322 average, 11 home runs and 44 RBIs this spring as a senior. The Phillies made Stokes their 10th-round pick in June’s draft, filling the South Carolina native with both excitement and relief.

“I was so grateful,” Stokes said following Williamsport Crosscutters batting practice Friday at Bowman Field. “God held me off from getting drafted last year for a reason. I had to trust that, and I did.”

Now that he’s 15 games into his professional baseball career, Stokes said it no longer matters where he was selected in the draft. He was a senior sign for the Phillies, getting just a $10,000 signing bonus with no leverage to return to school. The money saved on Stokes’ signing bonus slot value of $142,600 could go toward other players who signed for more than their slot value.

To Stokes, it doesn’t matter. He just wanted the opportunity to play. And now that he’s finding himself consistently in the middle of the Crosscutters’ lineup daily, he’s taken advantage of the change. He came into Friday night’s game against West Virginia hitting .343 in nine games with the Cutters. His nine RBIs are tied for the fifth-most on the team despite playing in just 28 percent of the team’s games.

“I have to prove to (the Phillies) that they didn’t make a mistake and they got the best player they could drafting me,” Stokes said. “I’m going to have to prove that to them and show them I want to be here and that I can move through the organization. I need to show them that and prove I’m not just a senior pick. I need to go out there and earn a spot instead of getting complacent about getting drafted. Where I got drafted doesn’t matter much to me anymore. It’s about what I can do today to show them I’m the best player they have in this organization.”

Just getting to this point has been a big step for Stokes. He’s dealt with a number of injuries throughout his career which has even made him think maybe baseball just wasn’t for him. He had a fracture in his foot which cost him half of his sophomore season at South Carolina. He broke his wrist as a junior and then missed time with a pulled hamstring as a senior.

But nothing was quite like when Stokes dislocated his jaw laughing just before a plane ride to play the Super Regional series in Arkansas this spring. Just before the plane took off, one of his teammates either did or said something funny as Stokes was taking a drink from his water bottle. Somehow, in the process, he dislocated his jaw and couldn’t shut his mouth.

Since the plane was getting ready to take off, he didn’t say anything to the athletic trainers on board. He began to freak out internally as he couldn’t resolve the problem. His teammates, thinking he was joking, began laughing and taking Snapchat videos of him with his mouth stuck open. When he finally told the trainers, they tried to have him set his own jaw back in place, but he couldn’t do it.

His mouth stayed open for the entire two-hour flight to Arkansas and another hour while he got to the doctor. During the course of the trip, the pain was so bad he threw up on the flight, then again on the bus ride to the hotel, and a third time in an Uber on the way to the doctor.

“I think it was the pain was so bad that I was naturally resisting myself to be able to pop it back in place,” Stokes said. “When I got to the doctor, he tried to do it, but I think I was naturally resisting. So they had to put me under some anesthesia and pop it back into place.”

Doctors gave him just a half-dose of anesthesia so he was awake while they reset his jaw. But as soon as they were able to get one side set right, Stokes said he felt instant relief. He went out in Game 1 of the best-of-three series and hit a solo home run.

“I was laughing at first, but then after a while I’m like this is serious,” Stokes said. “I’m stuck like this for three hours and the pain got worse. When I started throwing up, they knew it was serious, too. It was not fun and I don’t wish that anybody has to go through that.”

Stokes said dealing with the various injuries in his career has taught him the mental toughness he thinks he’ll need to succeed as a professional. He showed some of that mental toughness as he bounced back from not being selected in the 2017 draft. Although it threw him into a funk for a couple weeks, he never stopped working out to become a better player.

And now, just because he’s had a hot start to his career, he’s not backing off of his preparation. Instead, he’s making sure he continues to find ways to improve so he can keep living his dream of playing professional baseball.

“I can’t play like Mike Trout plays. I can’t be another player. I have to know the way Madison Stokes plays baseball,” Stokes said. “I have to be myself and find out what works for me. I’m not always going to rip the cover off the ball. I’m going to have some slumps. But I have to stick to my mindset, stick to my routine and trust the way I prepare. I think every day can be a win for me if I do that.”