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Calculus, Tommy John and a Comeback

By Steve Shutt, 08/10/21, 11:30AM EDT


Preston Gainey's journey to High Point took perseverance

    Preston Gainey leads the High Point Rockers in a number of statistical categories.  He is the team leader in saves with seven.  He is holding opponents to a .208 batting average, the best of any High Point pitcher with more than 10 innings under his belt.  He leads the team with 15 games finished.

    Gainey is also the most likely to lead the team in semesters of calculus while in college with three.

    Gainey’s journey to the High Point Rockers has not ben a typical journey.  His dream was to be a Naval aviator and the path to that dream led him directly to Annapolis and the U.S. Naval Academy.

    “The application process is pretty intricate and involved,” said Gainey of securing admission to the Academy.  “You have to get a Senatorial or Congressional nomination, pass a bunch of physical tests. It’s a long and arduous process.”

    The Navy baseball coaching staff, led by head coach Paul Kostacopoulos and pitching coach Ryan Mau, didn’t start recruiting Gainey until late in his senior year at Calvary Christian High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. An All-Broward County selection in soccer, Gainey was an outfielder on the baseball team.  Because it was late in the recruiting process, Gainey opted to spend a year at Palm Beach Community College before heading off to Navy.

    “I decided to take the classes they recommended in order to prepare myself for the Academy,” said Gainey.  “I helped coach my high school team and I was just staying in shape and got prepared for Plebe Summer.”

    According to the Naval Academy web site “The purpose of Plebe Summer is to lay the foundation of the Academy’s four-year professional development curriculum.”

    According to Gainey, the seven weeks of Plebe Summer were “Pretty terrible.  Everything you hear about it is true.”

    But, like any Midshipman will tell you, there were a lot of positives to Plebe Summer as well.

    “There were a lot of cool things you got to do, like running the obstacle course and endurance course, learning to qualify with pistols and rifles, learning how to sail, and patrol boats and things that most people don’t get the opportunity to do,” recalled Gainey.  “You go from being a civilian to a member of the armed forces and that’s part of the process.  They have to break down some barriers, change your mindset. It was a unique experience for sure.”

    For many college student-athletes, the toughest part of their day may be those two to three hours they spend on the practice field, running drills, conditioning, and planning for their next contest.  At the Academies, the easiest part of a cadet’s day is usually on the practice field.

    “There is a sense of freedom when you got to the baseball clubhouse,” said Gainey.  “As soon as you were in the clubhouse, everything else that you had to deal with was out the window.  You were with teammates, upper classmen, lower classmen, everybody was on the team. There wasn’t as much of a hierarchy as there was in Bancroft Hall or on The Yard. Obviously, you still had the challenges involved with playing Division I baseball. You were trying to be an everyday guy and prove yourself.  But it definitely was one of the nicest parts of the day unless you were in trouble or on the naughty list.”

    And as is the case at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, the academic demands exceed those of most college students.

    As Gainey recalled, “My freshman year I took three semesters of calculus, two semesters of chemistry.  The next year Physics I, Physics II, statistics, Naval history, seamanship and navigation leadership, martial arts, wrestling, swimming, boxing.  It was a required class.  I liked boxing a lot more than wrestling or martial arts. In martial arts they would have us stand there and do some ‘body hardening’ where you would literally have a partner and kick each other in the legs.  And that got old real quick.”

    Preston found success on the baseball field.  The Navy coaching staff had converted the high school outfielder into a pitcher and he blossomed under the watch of Kostacopoulos and Mau.  Gainey was 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 14 appearances as a freshman in 2011.  He earned two saves in the Patriot League Tournament and was named to the all-tournament team.  Gainey was a two-time Patriot League Player of the Week and got the win against Army West Point to win the Patriot League Championship.

    And nothing at the Naval Academy is better than beating Army.

    “It’s ingrained in your brain that everything you do the second you step on campus, is to Beat Army.  As a plebe you are required to run everywhere you go in Bancroft Hall and at every corner that you turn, you have to scream ‘Sir, Go Navy, Sir’ or ‘Sir, Beat Army, Sir.’  You are bred to hate Army on the athletic field but then eventually be their teammate in the armed forces.  Being part of a team that beat Army, and won the Patriot League Championship, it was pretty special.”

    The final college football game of each regular season, prior to the bowls, is always the Army-Navy game.  While he was there to play baseball and become an officer, Gainey enjoyed his experience at the football games.

    “Leading up to the football game, it’s chaos,” he said.  “(The game) is a blast, it’s an awesome experience.  I mean, it’s a football game that the President and the Vice President of the United States are attending.  It’s a pretty impressive thing to be a part of.  I did the march on the field both years.”

    On the baseball field, Gainey continued to grow and improve as a sophomore.  He was 3-3 with the Midshipmen and was a second team All-Patriot League choice as a starting pitcher.  But that year spent at Palm Beach C.C. had allowed Gainey to turn 21 and thus become eligible for the Major League Baseball Draft.

    Preston Gainey was at a crossroads in his life.  Midshipmen sign their commitment papers prior to their junior year at the Academy, obligating them to five years of military service as repayment for the taxpayer-funded education they received.  But Gainey was MLB Draft-eligible and was being courted by a number of scouts.  A decision loomed and a future hung in the balance.

    “Obviously, as a kid I dreamed of playing pro baseball,” said Gainey.  “When I decided to go to the Naval Academy, my aspirations were not to get drafted and play professional baseball.  I ultimately wanted to fly. I had a high quality education paid for by Uncle Sam.  That was my goal in going there.  The hardest thing was thinking about leaving my teammates and classmates because you develop a bond there that’s different than anywhere else.

    All it takes is one look at Preston Gainey’s Twitter account to know that he remains a steadfast Navy fan.

    “Guys that were in my wedding were Academy teammates or roommates or classmates,” said Gainey.  “I was in a wedding last fall that was an Academy teammate. The bond just goes beyond baseball or the Academy. You have a respect for the guys who have been through it with you that’s just different.  Thinking about leaving, that was one of the hardest parts.” 

Gainey, from page 2

    Ultimately, Gainey’s decision came down to deciding between one dream or another.

    “In considering whether to enter the draft or stay, it came down to the fact that I’m foregoing a once in a lifetime opportunity for another once in a lifetime opportunity.  There was a lot of prayer involved, a lot of seeking counsel.  Talking to family and friends and ultimately, everybody was supportive in saying if you want to chase after this dream, you’ve got one shot to do it and the window is not very big.  So go after it. It’s been a wild ride.”

    Gainey was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 11th round of the 2012 MLB Draft.  He progressed from Rookie League Helena, Mont. to Class A Wisconsin and was named to the Florida State League All-Star team in 2015. He reached Class AA Biloxi, Miss. in 2016 and 2017.

    Then came 2018.  Gainey was invited to early spring training and was available to pitch should he be needed in the Major League camp.

    “It was my first appearance and I threw a live BP and on the last pitch, they wanted me to do a modified pitchout,” said Gainey.  “And something felt off when I did it.  I felt this kind of pull and I got sore and I knew it didn’t feel right.” But in his next outing, “I threw the first pitch, I tried to let it go. And the elbow just wasn’t cooperating.  I had an MRI and was told my elbow was completely torn.”

    Tommy John surgery sidelined him for the rest of 2018 and he spent the year rehabbing. But by June 2019, the elbow had failed to respond. A second surgery was performed because the initial graft had failed.  Gainey continued his rehab which, by the spring of 2021 had him training and throwing at Cressey Sports Performance in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.  That’s where he met Rockers manager Jamie Keefe who was impressed with Gainey’s work ethic and talent.          

“Every single day during that four-year span, I was working towards coming back to play,” Gainey recounted.  “Every single day I was working, rehabbing, training, throwing. Mentally preparing and visualizing playing the game again.”

    Being a Rocker has been a worthwhile and rewarding experience for the now 30-year old Gainey.

    “Jamie (Keefe), Billy (Horn) Frank (Viola) and Albert (Gonzalez) are, in my opinion, the best in the business at connecting the dots and helping guys,” said Gainey. “In spite of wanting to win games here, they have the player’s best interests in mind first and foremost. They know what’s good for the Rockers because if you can get guys (signed), you’re going to guys who want to come here to play.”

    There may be one other category in which Preston Gainey leads the Rockers.

    That would be heart.