Fateful foul brings family, player together

Fateful foul brings family, player together

NILES, Ohio -- Over the public-address speaker, the announcer rattled off the facts printed on Luke Holko's baseball card, which had been handed out to the fans who filed into Eastwood Field for a Class A game between Mahoning Valley and Aberdeen.

His favorite foods? Cheese, chicken wings, tacos, hot dogs and salad with ranch dressing.

Favorite movies? "Shrek," "Cars" and "Open Season."

Favorite hobbies? Baseball, wrestling, playing cards, Mario Kart and bike riding.

All the things that define 5-year-old Luke's personality. All the things nearly robbed from him by one fateful foul ball.

It has been nearly a year since Luke was struck in the back of the head at a Mahoning Valley game. On the night of Sept. 2, 2009, emergency workers rushed Luke from Eastwood Field to nearby St. Elizabeth Health Center, and doctors feared the little boy might not make it through the night. Even if Luke survived, loss of motor skills, loss of cognitive function, and, generally speaking, loss of personality were all legitimate possibilities.

Yet here was Luke on this splendid summer Sunday, accompanied by his parents, Chad and Nicole, as he threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the Scrappers, a Cleveland Indians affiliate, took the field against the IronBirds in what was dubbed "Luke Holko Night."

Luke's right leg wobbled as he walked, and a batting helmet hid the scar on the back of his head. But other than that, he appeared to be a normal little boy on a ballfield.

"Normal changes from day to day," Chad said. "We're not back to what normal was before, but we're accepting the new normal."

And the Holkos aren't the only ones.

A life changed

A Bible sat on the chair in front of Ben Carlson's locker in the home clubhouse at Class A Lake County last week. The bats and gloves that surrounded his locker are the tools of his trade, yet that book is what now inspires Carlson, a newly converted Christian.

The 22-year-old Carlson, in his first full professional season after being drafted by the Indians in the sixth round last year, has been mired in a season-long slump. But he considers the year to be productive, from a personal standpoint.

"I was really struggling in baseball and life, in general," Carlson said. "Baseball can really be a blessing and, other times, it can really beat you up. If you let the adversity and failure get to you, it can really push you down into some places you don't want to be. One day, I just started praying. Ever since that day, miracles have happened in my life."

Ben said that prior to this summer, he spent his entire adult life caught up in himself and his accomplishments. Like many who play baseball for a living, he was always the best player on the team growing up, always the one seemingly on the fast track to the big leagues.

But things kept happening in Carlson's life that reminded him there is more at play. And nothing shook him like that hanging curveball he yanked into the stands at Eastwood Field last September, when he was a member of the Scrappers.

It was a screaming liner that struck Luke, who was seated on his father's lap in the seats just beyond the Mahoning Valley dugout, then dropped directly to the ground. Luke's head had absorbed the full impact.

"I hit the ball," Carlson said, "and the whole stands went quiet. It was the quietest moment I've ever heard with thousands of people there."

Ben watched as Chad held Luke in his arms and screamed for help. He watched as an EMT worker rushed to the Holkos' section, then guided the family into a tunnel leading to the main concourse. The shocked crowd and the players and coaches hung their heads and prayed, and the quiet was quickly broken up by the sound of an ambulance.

After a few minutes, the umpire called for play to resume.

Ben struck out.

"I just didn't even care at all about baseball," he said. "I didn't know their family or anything at the time. We were getting updates throughout the game on Luke's progress or where he was. There was an EMT guy there that was contacting some of the people at the hospital. Our manager, Travis Fryman, came in after the game and said they didn't know if Luke was going to make it.

"My family all called, my friends all called. There were so many people supporting me and trying to cheer me up. But it was almost useless."

"At first, I walked in the house, and he was so scared he didn't say anything. ... We're eating pizza together, sitting next to each other and getting all messy with the pizza sauce, and all of a sudden we were best friends. By the end, he was crying to his mom because he didn't want me to leave."
-- Indians prospect
Ben Carlson

A few days after the accident, with Mahoning Valley's season wrapped up, Fryman drove Carlson to the Akron Children's Hospital, where Luke had been transferred. Ben entered the room to find Luke in an induced coma, surrounded by stuffed animals and Indians paraphernalia. Nicole and Chad greeted Ben with a hug, and the three cried together.

"They never blamed me for anything," Ben said. "That's amazing, how they are, because it would have been easy to point fingers or place blame on me, even though I had no control over the situation."

Ben took that as a blessing. And he carried it with him throughout the winter. His mother, Kim, followed Nicole's online journal, which detailed Luke's recovery. In remarkable detail, as if writing to a friend, Nicole documented Luke's relearning how to swallow, relearning how to talk, relearning how to walk. Each morning, Ben would wake up at his parents' house in Topeka, Kan., and his mother would have Nicole's latest post printed out.

"We had a big folder of all her daily blogs in there," Ben said.

A life repaired

The news in those blog entries was good. Or, at least, as good as it could be for the boy who had tissue destroyed in his brain and cerebellum.

Luke spent a month at Akron Children's Hospital, then was transferred to a children's rehab center at the Cleveland Clinic. He went back to Akron for one more week of treatment before being released in early November. Three days a week, his mother would drive him the 40 miles from home to the Akron facility for rehabilitation.

Doctors never gave the Holkos a definitive long-term prognosis on Luke's recovery, because they simply didn't know how his brain and body would respond to the trauma. Yet two weeks before Christmas, Luke said his first word (he asked for "more" when being fed Cheerios). One month after that, he stopped using a wheelchair and progressed to a walker. And by the end of May, he was walking on his own.

That's when Nicole knew she had her son back.

"The biggest thing for me was when he just, out of the blue, says 'I love you' and gives you a big hug," Nicole said. "For so many months, we didn't have that. Not because he didn't want to, but because he couldn't."

Luke still shows the lingering signs of his trauma. He is reports to Akron once a month for rehab, and he receives regular botox injections to address deficiencies in his right leg.

"He runs, he plays, he falls a lot," Chad said. "His speech is coming back. It's a little slow. The damage is done to his cerebellum, which controls motor skills, and speech is a motor skill. But he's doing great.

"Whatever minor deficit he has is minor. He's here."

Two lives intertwined

Luke and Ben didn't formally meet until late June, when Lake County's season reached the All-Star break and Ben made the hour-long drive to the Holkos' home in North Bloomfield.

"At first, I walked in the house, and he was so scared he didn't say anything," Ben recalled. "Then they ordered pizza. We're eating pizza together, sitting next to each other and getting all messy with the pizza sauce, and all of a sudden we were best friends. By the end, he was crying to his mom because he didn't want me to leave."

Carlson and the Holkos have remained close. The family went to a Lake County game last month, so that Luke could see his new buddy in action. Afterward, Ben watched in amazement as Luke ran around in the parking lot, not a care in the world. Mere months earlier, Ben had worried that he had ended that little boy's life. Now, he saw a young child full of life and blissfully unaware of what he had experienced.

Ben felt fulfilled.

"What happened with Luke, I couldn't see it at the time," Ben said. "I thought it was just a freak accident. The more I think about it, I realize it was God reaching out to me and his family. Bad things happen, and people don't know why they happen. I'm sure everybody questions why, but, quite honestly, I can say it was God's plan for us to meet."

The Holkos have viewed it as a sort of blessing in disguise, too.

"If you're going to get hit by a baseball," Nicole said, "you couldn't want it from anybody better than a guy like Ben. He has one day off this month, and he's going to spend it with Luke. They love each other."

But Luke's near-death has inspired a wide array of emotions from Nicole and Chad. They are forever thankful for the ballpark personnel and EMTs who rushed to their assistance that night and are forever fans of the sport, yet they are adamant that teams could and should do more to shield their fans from flying objects.

Chad, for one, wishes a stat could be tallied to demonstrate how many people get hit in a given year. He believes the number would be eye-opening enough to inspire changes.

"We feel there could be something more," he said. "It might not be as far as what we think. We've discussed nets [extending further down the line]. We don't know how feasible that is. But overall, we want to see more fans protected."

While Luke's story is certainly an inspiration, the Holkos have had to live with the reality of how one foul ball permanently altered their lives. Luke's recovery was and is miraculous, but the stress of hospital visits, insurance issues and media attention could wear on a weaker family.

"We've definitely been through the worst," Chad said. "I can't imagine it getting much worse than what we went through. But we stick together as a family, and you don't think twice about it."

The milestones, big and small, that Luke has reached on his path to that new definition of "normal" are what have guided the Holkos along the way. And the most public milestone occurred Sunday at Eastwood Field, when Luke returned to the scene of the accident, and, with one short toss across the plate, proved that he is very much alive and well.

"The biggest thing for him was just throwing out the first pitch," Nicole said. "He was just really excited for that."

About 300 miles away, Carlson and his Lake County teammates were playing a game in South Bend. But Ben would soon receive a text message with a photo of Luke in a Scrappers jersey, wearing Ben's old No. 11 and giving a thumbs up to the camera just after throwing that first pitch.

"To see him smile?" Ben said. "I can't even express it in words."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. He blogs about baseball at CastroTurf. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.