The old saying goes, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” There may not be a better illustration of the familiar quotation than Baylor sophomore pitcher Max Garner.
The native of Austin, Texas, had a shaky start to his baseball career with the Bears, compiling a 9.31 ERA in 12 relief appearances during his rookie season in 2009.
“I had a really rough year as a freshman,” Garner said. “I was a deer caught in the headlights, and scared to throw strikes. I was afraid to make big mistakes and would end up walking people.”
Following his freshman year, Garner headed to Wisconsin to play summer college baseball in the Northwoods League. But just two weeks into the stint, Garner knew something just was not right. He had no energy and had lost about 10 mph off the normal velocity (91 mph) of his fast ball. Garner did not have any arm troubles, and there was no explanation for the sudden change, so he headed to the doctor to figure it out.
At the doctor’s visit, Garner had found he had lost 20 to 25 pounds in about three weeks, and he also had a fever along with some other abnormal symptoms. He headed back to Austin to get a thorough check-up with the physicians in his hometown. He had a pain in his gut that continued to get stronger, and before he could even get to a doctor, the inexplicable pain escalated.
“My parents found me in my room on the floor and I could barely even talk,” Garner said. “It was like the pain of being hit by a baseball – external pain – it was unbelievable, it was different. That was the main red flag … it really caught my attention.”
Finally, after seeing a specialist and undergoing several tests, Garner was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis. The disease causes inflammation and ulcers in the lining of the colon, which often bleed and produce pus. Fatigue and weight loss are key symptoms of the disease. Garner was admitted to the hospital in July of 2009, and was immediately put on medication to control the disease, including prednisone, a form of steroids.
“(The medications) helped me turn around quickly, so I decided to return to school in the fall, not even really worried about playing baseball my sophomore year,” Garner said. “I hadn’t gained any weight back or worked out in months.”
The doctors weaned Garner off the steroids little by little, but when he got down to a very small dose, he began to relapse.
“The doctors thought the steroids were masking the symptoms rather than things actually being healed,” Garner said.
It was about two-thirds of the way through the fall semester, and Garner had to withdraw from school. He returned to Austin, and went back into the hospital. At that point, he was down to about 150 pounds – 45 pounds less than his normal weight. He then went to see doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and was prescribed different medications, including a shot he gives himself every day.
In the meantime, Garner’s father was keeping Baylor head coach Steve Smith abreast of the situation.
“They were never without hope, but I think it got to a place where playing baseball became very much a secondary goal,” Smith said. “Quality of life and even life itself (was the goal). Physically, he looked awful. Honestly, he looked awful for a long time because the medication they put him on is some pretty powerful stuff.”
Garner missed the spring semester of school as he tried to recover from his bout with the disease, and received a medical redshirt from the NCAA for what should have been his sophomore season.
“His dad came to me once and started talking to me about relinquishing his scholarship because he just didn’t want to hold us to that not know what Max’s future would be,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel right about it at the time because the kid was fighting it every way he could. I just didn’t want to do that. I say that only because I think there were some serious doubts whether he would ever play again.”
But finally, Garner turned the corner and the disease went into remission. Eventually he got to the point where he could work out again and asked the trainer at the gym he went to in high school for help. He had to watch his diet carefully as he tried to regain the weight, but gradually his body started to get healthier.
“He was e-mailing our trainer at Baylor and they coordinated my cardio and leg and upper body workouts to keep everything on the same page,” Garner said. “It was a long process. When I started lifting weights again, I felt much better, but I was still 165 or 170 pounds. I could barely lift anything … I was lifting about as much weight as I did in eighth or ninth grade.”
Garner returned to campus for the second summer semester in 2010, and started working out with Baylor’s strength coach, and playing catch. It was the first time he had thrown a ball in 14 months.
“We had to take it slowly, but by the time fall practice started, I was able to throw in all my scheduled fall scrimmages,” Garner said. “I wasn’t as strong, but it was a definitely a good place to start.”
Smith believes Garner’s battle with his health matured that scared freshman who would not look an adult in the eye into a grown man, and specifically remembers the conversation between them when his pitcher first told him about the ulcerative colitis.
“He was a different kid,” Smith said. “When he left, I thought to myself if he ever gets through this and can pitch again there’s no way he’ll be the same person on the mound. It couldn’t do anything but make him a better person, a better player, a better competitor. That’s what has been so cool about watching this, because it has absolutely happened.”
This season, Garner is Baylor’s most effective reliever, and boasts a 2-1 record, three saves and 2.53 ERA in a team-leading 18 appearances. He has 28 strikeouts and just 10 walks in 32 innings pitched.
“After having a whole year to watch from the stands after never missing a game in my life, it kind of changed my perspective on everything,” Garner said. “I just don’t really have any fear anymore. I don’t have fear of missing a spot by a couple of inches. I just want to go out there and stick with the game plan and get ahead of hitters, and make the hitters have to beat me.”
One of the biggest highlights of the season for Garner was picking up a save in the Bears’ 7-6 win against then-No. 8 Texas on April 9. Garner got the last out with the potential tying and go-ahead runs on base with two outs for Baylor’s first win on its’ home field against Texas since 2005.
“Throwing in front of big crowds or on the road really doesn’t bother me like it did my freshman year,” Garner said. “I’ve been really comfortable out there. I’m confident in what I can do and what the defense behind me can do and I just let it all work together.”
“It’s been a big lift for the team,” Smith said. “I wasn’t counting on him (this season). I couldn’t pencil him in to close games for us or get big outs. I didn’t know what we would get. I am often asked about pleasant surprise – this isn’t even a pleasant surprise. It was completely unexpected.”