Mike Miller was one doctor’s appointment away from hanging up his baseball spikes.
However, Miller, Cal Poly’s starting shortstop, returned to the game he loves after facing setbacks stemming from a lingering injury.
The pain most affected his play as a junior in high school, and he said he doesn’t know how it happened.
Miller visited doctors, who ran tests and took X-rays. It turned out Miller had stress fractures in the lumbar region of his back.
“I could barely walk, hardly get out of bed,” he said.
Miller subdued the pain by loading up on seven to eight ibuprofen a day.
“My liver will probably fail by 50, but that’s how it goes,” he said.
Doctors told Miller to wear a plastic corset specifically designed to restrict movement, which meant no twists, no turns. But playing baseball involves twisting and turning, essential movements when hitting, throwing, running and fielding.
David Miller, Mike’s dad, said it was frustrating for his son.
“It took him out of everything because he lost his mojo,” David said.
From February 2006 to August 2006, Miller wore the corset.
“Every day he had to Velcro in and out of the thing,” his dad said.“And every time he went to the doctor it was ‘Another six weeks,’ and so on.’”
While he abstained from physical exertion, the pain gradually worsened.
Surgery was the next step. Had Miller gone that route, doctors would have fused his L4 disc to his vertebrae column, he said. The L4-L5 discs in the lumbar region are the biggest discs. Vertebrae 1-5 helps transfer upper body weight to the pelvis and legs, and vice versa.
The lower back is the “kinetic link,” transfering energy from the legs to the upper body, said kinesiology professor Robert Clark, who specializes in biomechanics.
An incomplete connection between body parts hampers athletic performance, as does size. Clayton Valley High School baseball coach David Jeans, who coached Miller while at De La Salle in Concord, Calif., said Miller was undersized.
“He’d come in and ask for a list of things to do to get better,” Jeans said. “And then (he would) go out on his own for two or three hours and work.”
And when Jeans talked with Miller, “It was almost like dealing with a senior, but he was a freshman,” Jeans said.
By his senior year in 2007, Miller had a restored connection in his kinetic link, and he rejoined his teammates that spring. The Spartans compiled a 21-7 record, secured a Bay Valley League championship and won the CIF-North Coast Section. Miller hit .299 with eight doubles, a triple, 21 RBIs and stole eight bases. Miller also maintained a 3.9 grade point average.
College coaches showed interest, but Miller chose to forgo baseball and attend Cal Poly to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“My parents were disappointed that I wasn’t pursuing baseball,” he said.
Enthralled by the college experience, Miller said he felt incomplete. When the 2008 baseball season began, he felt an itch to play.
“This was the turning point,” Miller said.
It happened after practicing with his younger brother.
“I was like, ‘Man, I really wanna play, bad,’” he said. “Helping him made me realize how much I missed it.”
For an athlete, the inner competitor never dies. That spring Miller realized this and made the call.
“I said, ‘Dad, I’m thinking about doing this,’” Miller said. “And he was on board from the get-go.”
Starting in March 2008, Miller worked at a batting cage in Paso Robles. There he honed his skills, trading time in the cage for hitting lessons.
“I just wanted to take hacks; I didn’t care about getting paid,” he said.
After the 2008 spring quarter, Miller played for the Oakland Oaks, a summer league team coached by his former high school coach.
“I told him he was better than the guys I was coaching,” Jeans said.
Jeans said Miller’s confidence grew.
“I knew he could play, I think he knew he could play,” Jeans said. “He just needed to prove it to himself.”
That summer Miller regained his mojo, so he contacted Cuesta College head baseball coach Bob Miller.
“His skills jumped out,” Bob, who is in his ninth season, said. “Soft hands, quick feet, an accurate arm. He brought versatility.”
Yet Bob liked more than Miller’s skills.
“I coached him every day,” Bob said. “He was consistent and had the right work ethic. He was the guy at the end of the day who locked the gate.”
These were hectic times for Miller, who split his time between Cal Poly and Cuesta, enrolling in eight hours and 12 hours, respectively. Athletes must maintain 12 hours/credits to stay eligible.
Because he was out of the game his freshman year, Miller retained four years eligibility.
“I had to keep full-time status at Poly because I had student loans,” he said.
Considered a freshman on the field and a sophomore in the classroom, Miller worked toward earning an associate’s degree. According to a NCAA 4-2-4 rule, which governs transfer students jumping back and forth from two and four-year institutions, Miller needed to graduate from Cuesta before heading to a four-year athletic program.
David Miller said his son formulated an academic plan with help from counselors and advisers at both schools.
“I’ve never been more proud because this is stuff he had to do on his own,” David said.
By Spring 2009, Miller was Cuesta’s starting shortstop. After the season, he spent the summer playing for the San Luis Obispo Rattlers, a collegiate summer team that draws players from colleges and high schools.
Miller said he played well for the Rattlers. In fact, when the season had ended he received a phone call from the coach of an Alaskan collegiate summer league team, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots. The team needed a shortstop, so Miller joined and played in the National Baseball Congress Baseball World Series, which is held every year in Wichita, Kan. Miller was selected for the NBC All-tournament team.
After the summer season, players went back to the academic grind. Miller battled another tough decision.
While at Cuesta, and with the Rattlers, Miller was eyed by Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee, who liked what he saw from the middle infielder.
“The impression I got was that he was a tough ball player who competed on the field,” Lee said.
Former Mustang Kyle Smith left a void in the team when he signed a professional contract in the middle of Summer 2009, so Lee offered Miller the chance to play at Cal Poly.
But Miller garnered interest from another school as well. Miller visited Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and said he was ready to commit but called Lee first for advice.
“He told me to go because he couldn’t guarantee me a spot,” Miller said.
But something happened with the Virginia Tech coaching staff, something Miller declined to comment about. Ultimately, he opted to remain at Cal Poly.
Part of an exclusive fraternity again, Miller became the starting shortstop when the 2010 season began.
But initially Miller struggled.
“It’s a big jump from junior college to NCAA Division I because the speed of the game is different,” Lee said. “He was overwhelmed.”
Miller’s back pain flared up again, sending him back to the familiar pine where he spent the last six weeks of the 2010 season. In fact, the pain endured into the first three weeks of Miller’s summer season in Alaska.
So far he has championed the 2011 season. Offensively he is leading the team with a .374 batting average, to go with his seven doubles and 18 RBIs.
“He’s been our best hitter in pressure situations,” Lee said.
The coaching staff has worked to improve Miller’s offensive approach at the plate. Changes include a leg kick, which helps time pitches and makes him aggressive and attack pitches. Plus, Miller said his body is in sync so he uses more shoulders and less arms.
“I’m 170 pounds, but I’m just a strong as somebody who uses 160 pounds of their 200 pounds,” he said. “I can generate more torque and keep my bat in the zone as long as possible to give myself a chance, even if I’m fooled.”
If there’s one thing Miller knows, it’s how to maximize his potential.
“I have the utmost respect for Michael,” Jeans said. “He has a shot at playing pro ball. I wouldn’t put it past him.”
While a professional career remains uncertain, one thing is for sure.
“I want to be remembered as a guy who played hard every day,” Miller said.