When Randy Fischback told his sister he was traveling to watch his son Steven Fischback pitch against Missouri, she broke down in tears. After an injury halted Fischback’s MLB-geared career close to three years ago, she never thought this day would come.
And at times, Fischback didn’t either.
“I remember just kind of throwing in the bullpen, my arm just acting up, throwing 81 and just thinking, ‘Wow, when am I going to have to call it quits?'” Fischback said. “I wasn’t going to do it until I either hurt myself again or the coach told me I wasn’t going to play. There were definitely times where I thought both those situations might arise.”
After his sophomore season, Fischback tore the labrum in his right shoulder playing catch — sending what was a career that looked to be steamrolling toward the major leagues in a downward spiral of pain and rehabilitation. One twist of the shoulder benched Fischback for 113 games and left him unable to return to the game he loved for close to three years.
“No one can predict an injury, and when you are the parent of a pitcher, in terms of pitching, that is your worst nightmare,” Randy said. “You quickly start hearing about other people’s success stories, and then you hear the horror stories. It was a real mixed bag, and after the injury, we just didn’t know what to think.”
But after three years of hard-fought rehab, Fischback’s back. He went 4 1/3 innings and allowed four earned runs to Missouri in his first game back with the Mustangs since May 25, 2008. Last Sunday, he went five innings and gave up three earned runs against Oklahoma State.
It’s hardly the picture perfect return he imagined, but following the blur of bullpen sessions and grueling exercises, not even a few blemishes on the stat sheet could knock the smile off Fischback’s face. After all, he has come a long way just to get to this point.
Fischback’s career was just on its way up, before everything came crumbling down.
After starting just three games his freshman year, Fischback started 14 the next season. He finished with a 4.55 ERA in a team-high 85 innings. He also racked up 79 strikeouts and held batters to a .263 batting average.
“Leaving high school, we thought his career was on a good solid upward trajectory,” Randy said. “He had a decent freshman year, but it was very solid sophomore year, so we thought he would get drafted after his junior year and go pro and all that.”
There was a certain hype about Fischback. After his sophomore season, and a summer season in the Alaskan Baseball League with the Mat-Su Miners, the MLB scouts started talking. He was tabbed as the 25th-best prospect in College Baseball Top 50 Countdown.
Then, the pain started.
“I threw 85 innings my sophomore year and then I went to Alaska and threw 30 to 40 more, which my body had never done,” Fischback said. “It crossed my mind that might do something.”
Turns out, it did.
After heading back home following a summer up north, Fischback found out he tore cartilage in his chest, where the ribs meet the sternum. No surgery was required, but it did take some months of rehabilitation to get back to the field. When he was cleared to play, he immediately took the field again.
“If you could put a moment on it, that is when it happened,” Fischback said. “I started throwing over Christmas break, just on a football field back up north in Walnut Creek … Long toss, playing catch probably about 100 feet.”
In a matter of minutes, Fischback’s pitching career came to a screeching halt. After all the years he spent playing baseball, all the innings he pitched to get his Division I scholarship and all the hard work he put in to getting to this point, a torn labrum nearly wiped the slate clean. He underwent surgery, remaining optimistic his career would still be on track.
But as time went on, his arm said otherwise.
“The doctor said nine to 12 months,” Randy said. “If Steven was going to come back, he’d know in nine to 12 months. Well, nine months went by and he said ‘It’s still sore. I can barely throw’ and then 12 months went by and then he just said, ‘I don’t think I am going to throw again.'”
Randy recalls one specific conversation he had with Fischback, word for word.
Close to the 12-month deadline his doctor had set for him, his arm still felt sore. His fastball still registered in the low 80s and — at this point — a return to collegiate dominance looked far out of the picture.
“Dad, I would just love to get back out on the mound and just be serviceable,” Randy recalls his son telling him. “I would like to get back to the team and just give them some serviceable innings. If I pitched the 6th and 7th inning in a few games it would just be so fun to get out there again.”
Fischback knew the history. Arm surgeries for pitchers pretty much act like brick walls. You either pick up enough steam to get past it, or you simply never do. Not even MLB stars like Mark Prior and Jason Schmidt could work hard enough to revive their careers after arm injuries.
But digit by digit on the radar gun, Fischback aimed for a comeback.
“He went through weeks and months at a time where things didn’t get better and we had to shut him down and revaluate his throwing program,” head coach Larry Lee said. “He got to a certain point where progress was very slow and limited.”
And despite setback after setback, Fischback kept to it. Velocity remains the hardest thing to regain. Before the injury, Fischback would consistently clock a low 90 mile per hour fastball. During his recovery, he would sit in the bullpen and — at best — scrape 81.
Two years later, after countless hours in the bullpen, Fischback is back to an 86-89 mile per hour fastball, almost 10 miles per hour better than what he was throwing in the fall.
“He has worked really hard and he has been rehabbing,” pitcher Kyle Anderson said. “He is definitely putting in the work and it is his time now, he deserves it.”
Don’t call it a comeback
Pitching hasn’t been Cal Poly’s strong suit in recent seasons.
With a staff ERA of 6.75, Cal Poly struggled to a 23-32 record last year. Injuries plagued the Mustangs on the mound, and with relievers filling in for starters, it was hard for Cal Poly to find success. With Fischback now healthy, some of his teammates are hoping they can turn that number around. The better Fischback can do, the better the team will do, Anderson said.
“I think those will correlate pretty strongly,” Anderson said. “If he pitches real well, like I know he can, I feel like we can go a long way.”
If Fischback does return to the pitcher he used to be, Lee will have a new weapon to work with. With Mason Radeke starting on Fridays, Fischback is expected to pitch Saturdays and provide a 1-2 punch Cal Poly hasn’t had for years.
“He is a key component of having a good weekend starting rotation,” Lee said. “We’re hoping that as the season progresses, he gets better with each outing. He’ll be a big part of our success, so we hope that he gets back to where he used to be.”
After what seemed to be an improbable comeback to the field this season, Fischback is certainly on that path. Against Missouri, Fischback retired nine straight batters and posted three straight scoreless innings. He then went on to shutout Oklahoma State in three innings after giving up three runs in the first last Sunday.
“I think as the season goes on, there is no reason he can’t get back to what he was doing on the mound as a sophomore,” Anderson said.
Still, after a comeback where Fischback showed everybody the things he can do, there are still things he can’t. But amidst all the negatives, Fischback sees positives. In the process of picking up the pieces of a shattered MLB dream, baseball has become less stressful. There are no more scouts to impress, and no more stats to pad.
Slowly, this game has become so much more than just a shot at a paycheck.
“Baseball has become a lot more fun,” Fischback said. “I don’t view it as a future career anymore. I would welcome being drafted after this year, but it has become a lot more about just enjoying my last year and leaving everything on the table.”
And for Fischback, that satisfaction is worth millions.