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EVANSVILLE -- Humble and self-effacing, Aaron Barrett is a walking miracle of science. He’s a study in resilience and perseverance. He’s the stuff of which movies are made.
But after watching several documentaries during the pandemic, including the popular “The Last Dance," Barrett still found it unusual to find a film crew following him around.
“Being the subject of a documentary film was definitely very weird at first,” said the Central High School graduate who became the first MLB pitcher to suffer a broken humerus and return to the majors.
“It took some time to get used to. It’s very surreal. But they are family now. We don’t even notice them anymore. We just do what we normally do and they capture our life.”
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Barrett broke the humerus in his right elbow in July 2016, threatening his career and damaging his psyche. After an agonizing three-year rehab process, Barrett returned to become a member of the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series championship team.
Director Jeff Unay, best known for his involvement in major motion pictures such as “King Kong” and “Avatar” as well as the 2017 documentary “The Cage Fighter” (his directorial debut) and “Free to Play” shares Barrett’s story.
The documentary crew has followed him at his home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, spring training in West Palm Beach, covered him at the minor league level from Fredericksburg, Virginia to Rochester, New York to winter league ball in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. They were to follow him to the Night of Memories on Saturday at Meeks Auditorium and his clinic on Sunday at the National Guard Armory. But their plans were derailed because two-thirds of the crew came down with COVID-19.
Barrett played in the regular season and the first half of the playoffs for Tigres del Licey in the Dominican before returning to his hometown. At his clinic, he re-told his unlikely story of becoming the lone athlete in MLB history to come back from a broken humerus while throwing a baseball. To characterize it more dramatically, his arm nearly snapped in half. Players on the scene said it sounded like a gunshot.
He underwent his second arm surgery. It was 1,495 days between MLB appearances, but Barrett was determined to come back.
“I tell them I was once in their exact same shoes,” Barrett said. “A kid from Evansville with a dream to pitch in the major leagues. With hard work and the belief that you can do anything you set your mind to, you can accomplish anything in this life.”
Barrett said his religious faith is the most important reason why he’s persevered through the injuries.
“My wife (Kendyl) has helped me the most, to continue to push forward and believing in me,” he said. “And lastly, my kids (Kollyns, 4, and Paxton, 1). Now that I have two young ones, the motivation is having my kids remember me playing. Leaving a legacy behind for them.”
Barrett considers himself blessed to have Wes Carroll, UE coach, and Ben Garland, his manager with Eugene Pate American Legion, help out with his clinic along with members of the current Aces team.
Garland said Barrett was aided in high school by several major league scouts coming to Central games to watch Bears teammate Preston Mattingly.
“The Dodgers saw almost every game Preston played in high school, so they saw Aaron,” Garland said. “In an early game, Central lost with Aaron pitching. (Bears coach) Jason Engelbrecht calls me, asking what was wrong with Aaron and the Dodgers end up drafting Aaron based on that performance. Turns out the Central catcher couldn’t catch Aaron.”
The Bears catcher kept dropping third strikes and the game got out of hand. But the scout was impressed by Barrett's superior stuff.
He was chosen in a low round out of Central by the Dodgers in 2006, but they did not offer him a contract. Barrett was drafted by the Minnesota Twins two years later out of Wabash Valley College, but he had already committed to Mississippi. He did not pitch well in his first year with the Rebels and was not going to receive a signing bonus from the Texas Rangers in ‘09. Barrett finally signed after being chosen in the ninth round of the ’10 draft by the Nationals.
For his part, Mattingly was a first-round selection of the Dodgers (31st overall) in the ‘06 MLB draft following his senior season at Central. He spent a total of six seasons in the Dodgers' and Cleveland Indians' organizations, finishing with a cumulative .232 batting average. He later became one of the oldest NCAA Division I basketball players in the nation, serving as a captain at Lamar University. He graduated from Lamar in 2016.
Even more impressively, Mattingly has climbed the administrative ladder, becoming the Philadelphia Phillies director of player development last September at the ripe old age of 34 (same as Barrett).
Barrett is proud of his old high school teammate.
“He’s always had a great mind and insight for the game of baseball,” Barrett said. ‘I knew once he got back into the game he would do extremely well. He’s always been one of the hardest-working guys I know. I have zero doubt he’s going to continue to do big things. The Phillies got not only a great baseball mind, but a great person.”
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Labor unrest has left Barrett's future up in the air. The MLB's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) expired on Dec. 1 and the lockout began almost immediately.
“With the current status of the CBA and MLB, there is no telling what will happen,” Barrett said. “I would like to think if I can get a contract I would be in Triple-A but we will see. It will all work out the way it’s supposed to.”
From Tommy John to fracture, to movie
Barrett, nicknamed “Bear,” was rehabbing from a torn UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) that required Tommy John surgery when he suffered the humerus fracture. Brent Pourciau, a mutual friend of Unay and Barrett, told his filmmaking friend that Barrett’s recovery was so unusual it deserved a documentary.
Pourciau, a biomechanics specialist, had seen plenty of big leaguers rehab. But no one had ever attempted a comeback from this kind of injury, one that had famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews calling Barrett the September night of his re-debut, telling him he was a "miracle."
After his 2019 return, Barrett spent nearly all of a COVID-abbreviated ’20 season at the Nationals' alternate training site. He was the last player on the team’s 40-man roster to get called up, appearing in two games in late September before he was shut down with a triceps strain.
Last season, Barrett split time between three minor league teams, 23 of his 33 appearances coming with Triple-A Rochester. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound righthander posted a combined 4-3 record with a 2.13 earned run average and 50 strikeouts in 38 innings, including two saves.
Asked what advice he would give to his 18-year-old self, Barrett said: "Have as much fun as possible. You just never know when your last possible game will be. So work your tail off, give everything you have and try to get better every single day and enjoy each moment."
Especially considering his career was on the verge of ending more than once, Barrett has had plenty of time to ponder his life after baseball.
"Baseball careers are definitely not as long as most regular professions," he said. "The later on your career goes, the more you start to think about what the next chapter is going to be. The best thing that works for me, is I try to be present on what’s going on in the current moment. If I start worrying about what’s going to happen in the future, it’s going to affect what’s going on right now.
"So how do I prepare? Be present. Win every day be your best every single day, and know that God has a plan."
While the average fan sees the huge contracts, he might not understand how much actual time, work and dedication it takes to be a professional athlete.
"There are many sacrifices that are made especially with those who have families," Barrett said. "And I think the biggest challenge of a professional athlete is that of the wives and kids. It’s not a normal lifestyle."
That's why he's so excited about the documentary, tentatively titled "Break Through."
"It’s going to give an inside look to what this actual life is like," Barrett said. "It’s not always the glitz and glamour that some may think it is. Not everyone signed the contract for hundreds of millions of dollars."
Through all the tribulations, he still considers himself blessed beyond belief to continue to play baseball.
"And we wouldn’t want this life any other way," Barrett said. "But it takes a lot of work."
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Central high grad, MLB pitcher Aaron Barrett overcomes injury, donates