Skyline graduate Adrian Sampson overcomes Tommy John surgery, gets drafted by Florida Marlins
July 26, 2011
By Bob Taylor
The excruciating pain in his elbow was matched by the agonizing ache in his heart. Adrian Sampson thought his baseball career might be over two years ago.
But the former Skyline High School standout underwent successful Tommy John surgery in 2009 and his career has entered a new promising chapter.
Sampson began his comeback this spring as a starter for Bellevue College. The freshman right-hander compiled a 6-2 record, a 1.87 earned run average with 82 strikeouts in 62 innings. Opponents hit just .176 against him.
Sampson’s pitching helped Bellevue win the NWAACC championship. His year also included getting selected by the Florida Marlins in the 16th round of the Amateur Baseball Draft.
“This year has been a lot of fun,” he said.
This summer, Sampson is pitching for the Bellingham Bells of the Northwest Collegiate League.
Sampson gives much of the credit for his fantastic season to Bellevue College coach Mark Yoshino.
“I had a lot of help from coach Yoshino. It got me back into a good rehab schedule, lifting weights and had me throw bullpens to build up my arm strength. I have to give him all the credit,” Sampson said.
Yoshino points out that Sampson’s internal drive had much to do with the season. The Bulldogs coach noted Sampson had a strong work ethic and an open mind to coaching tips.
Until last year, Yoshino didn’t think he had a chance of recruiting Sampson.
“He was completely off my radar,” said Yoshino, who knew when Sampson was a junior at Skyline that he had made a commitment to Oregon State.
Yoshino had seen Sampson pitch in summer baseball before and was familiar with his success at Skyline. Sampson was a standout during his sophomore and junior years at Skyline, earning all-KingCo Conference first-team honors both seasons. Some top programs had Sampson on their radar.
Surgery is needed
The fact Sampson pitched well during his junior year was partially due to willpower. Although his arm often hurt, he fought on.
“The pain just would not go away,” said Sampson.
Sampson took two weeks off, hoping the rest would help his arm in preparation for the summer American Legion season.
“I didn’t throw a baseball or anything during that time,” he said.
When he started a game for Lakeside Recovery’s Senior American Legion, his arm throbbed.
“It was the worst pain I ever felt,” he said.
Sampson went to a doctor and had an MRI. Because school was still in session, he went back to class that day.
“By the end of the day, my dad called. He told me the results. My ulnar ligament was torn,” Sampson said. “I knew I had to get Tommy John surgery right away.”
For a while, he just sat stunned.
“I couldn’t believe it at all. What would happen to my future? I knew I would not be playing my senior year. It was one of my worst days,” he said.
He had been dreaming about playing pro ball from the time he began playing at age 5. He went through all the usual channels of youth baseball. He grew up idolizing his older brother Julian, who also starred at Skyline before getting drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007.
For the younger Adrian to join Julian in the pros, he would have to go through the Tommy John surgery.
The Tommy John procedure is named after the former Major League pitcher. The procedure is also known as the ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction. The ligament on the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body. It takes a full year to recover from the surgery.
However, the success rate is quite high. Almost 90 percent of all players who undergo the surgery return and experience some success. John, for example, played 14 more years after the procedure and won 164 games.
On July 29, 2009, Sampson had his surgery. He woke up with a huge sling and his arm was in a cast. A week later, he began physical therapy.
“The process went through a rollercoaster of emotions,” he said. “One day, my arm would be pain free, and I would feel like I am on the way back. Another day, sometimes I would wake and my arm would be super sore. I started to wonder if I might be in the group of guys who had Tommy John surgery who didn’t come back.”
But Sampson continued to work.
“I had no intentions of not coming back to play baseball. I am a baseball player. I had just hit a little speed bump,” he said. “I wanted to get through this. I wanted to still play baseball. That had been my goal the whole time.”
Heading to Bellevue
Because of the surgery and recovery time, Sampson was unable to pitch his senior year at Skyline. That presented a problem because most of the colleges that had recruited him lost interest.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for college,” he said.
But Skyline coach Chris Tamminen called Yoshino to see if he was interested in giving Sampson a chance.
“It was definitely a shock. When I met him and his father I left with a good impression,” Yoshino said about Sampson.
Sampson had heard from Skyline graduates Michael Lee and Kyle Decater about the Bellevue program. Both had been successful at Bellevue before moving on to the college and professional ranks.
“I knew Bellevue was one of the best junior college programs in the country,” Sampson said.
Sampson and Bellevue became a perfect marriage.
Yoshino said he was impressed with Sampson’s attitude right from the start.
“He really wanted the team to do well,” Yoshino said. “When high-profile players go to a two-year college, some of them have prima donna attitudes with their own personal network of coaches and assistants, and aren’t loyal to the two-year college program they are part of. Adrian was the opposite, he came in just like everyone else, was a team player and made a strong commitment to the program.”
Throughout the season, Sampson got stronger and stronger. In the NWAACC Tournament, he blanked Lower Columbia, 3-0, on three hits. He struck out 15 and walked just one batter.
“It was one of the biggest games I have had in my career,” he said.
The performance led to Sampson being selected to the all-tournament team.
“He is a competitor, man,” Tamminen said. “He is the type of kid you definitely pull for.”
Drafted by the Marlins
Professional baseball scouts began following Sampson this season, too. When the Marlins selected Sampson it did not come as a complete surprise to him.
“I felt I would get drafted, but I had no idea what round or by what team,” he said. Sampson has until Aug. 15 to sign with the Marlins.
“I would love to start my professional career as soon as possible. I’m excited about the Marlins, but I also enjoyed my season at Bellevue. I have a lot of good options,” he said.
Yoshino had a hunch the Marlins might draft Sampson.
“Ironically, the day we made a significant pitching mechanic change in the bullpen was the day the Florida Marlins national scout was in to see him,” Yoshino said.
Sampson said he believes his career has entered a new chapter. In fact, he believes there are many chapters ahead.
“This year has gone by so fast. It’s been a fun ride,” he said. “I feel I have 14 to 20 years left in baseball. I will probably never stay away from baseball.”