By Billy Liggett
If Matt Marksberry had any idea going in that professional baseball would take this kind of toll on his body — that it would throw at him not one, but two near-death experiences …
Well, he’d probably still do it all over again.
It’s been a remarkable roller coaster ride for Marksberry, starting with the 2013 Major League Baseball draft where he went in the 15th round to the Atlanta Braves and ending with a trip to the hospital and nearly a week in an induced coma after suffering severe dehydration. In between — the high of being called up to pitch in the big leagues and the low of a team bus crash in the minors that injured eight of his teammates.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Marksberry says from his parents’ home near Cincinnati, Ohio. “Everything that’s happened these last three years, if it’s done anything, it’s showed me I have a purpose on this earth. If that purpose is baseball, then it’s baseball. If it’s not, it’s not. It’s a whole new outlook … I don’t worry about the little things anymore.”
The four-man rotation Campbell trotted out during its record-breaking 49-win season in 2013 was a rarity in college baseball. All four starters — senior Ryan Mattes, juniors Marksberry, Hector Cedeno and Ryan Thompson and sophomore Heath Bowers — could have been the ace for another ball club, combining to go 33-7 for the Big South regular-season champs. Even the closer that year, junior Ryan Thompson, won 9 games while posting 10 saves.
Marksberry’s role that year was “hard-throwing lefty.” He went 8-2 and was the only Camel pitcher with more strikeouts than innings pitched. As the season progressed, Marksberry began to catch the eyes of Major League scouts — as “hard-throwing lefties” are a commodity at the next level. The Atlanta Braves plucked him from Campbell in the 15th round of the 2013 draft — fulfilling a dream Marksberry had since he was a kid.
“I told my parents, my family, my friends … anyone who around, all I ever wanted growing up was to one day play Major League Baseball,” he says. “And when you achieve that dream, it gives you this enormous sense of self-verification. All that hard work I went through wasn’t in vain.”
That summer, Marksberry reported to the Danville Braves of the Appalachian League, pitching in 12 games (starting six) and posting a 1-3 record and an ERA over 5.00. His 2014 season was split between the Class A Rome (Ga.) Braves and the Advanced A Lynchburg Hillcats of the Carolina League. He was a combined 6-10 that season, but the ERA dropped to 3.55, marking progress.
While he honed his skills during that first full year, Marksberry found the most challenging part of baseball was simply getting by.
“People don’t realize when you’re drafted, unless you’re a ‘bonus baby,’ that signing bonus has to last you a long time,” he says. “When you’re dreaming of this moment, you don’t factor in that you’ll be living in a small apartment with four other guys, sharing rooms and sleeping on air mattresses. Eating peanut butter and jelly and living pretty close to the poverty level.”
Marksberry figures he made about $1,400 a month, with half of that money going to rent and the other half split between groceries, paying off college loans and buying other essentials.
“It’s stressful. At any point, you can be cut or released, and then you’re out there on your own,” he says. “I got by by going to work every day and grinding it out. Every night, I’d pray and then I’d say, ‘I’m going to make it to the Big Leagues’ four or five times out loud. As long as I improved and moved up a little every year, I’m gold.”
Marksberry did move up again in 2015, joining the High-A Carolina Mudcats. He struggled early in the season, but eventually he found his groove. In 22 games as a middle reliever, Marksberry went 3-1 with a career-low 2.78 ERA.
His numbers were being noticed in Atlanta.
“I’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball.”
— Pete Rose
Marksberry was fast asleep, his face resting against the window of the Mudcats’ charter bus midway through a drive from Salem, Va., to Myrtle Beach at 3 a.m. on March 12, 2015. He was jolted from his sleep by chaos — the bus was thrown to its side, and Marksberry went from peaceful rest to tasting mud, grass and broken glass within seconds.
According to several published reports, the driver of the bus was going well above the posted speed limit on a winding North Carolina two-lane highway when she failed to make a curve, hit a ditch and turned the bus onto its right side.
Of the 33 Mudcat players, coaches and personnel on the bus, eight were taken to the nearby hospital in Columbus County. Although none of the injuries were life-threatening, the wreck forced three Mudcats to the disabled list.
Pitcher Lucas Sims told WRAL at the time that he was walking out of the bathroom on the bus when the accident occurred. “The next thing I know, I was thrown to the side and we stop moving,” he said. “Just constant chaos broke out.”
Marksberry, who says he woke up uttering several expletives and holding on for his life, escaped with little more than a few bumps and scratches.
“It was crazy,” he says, “but also a minor miracle that nobody was seriously hurt. We were all lucky that night.”
A few weeks past the halfway point of the 2015 season that saw Marksberry go from Class A to the Class AAA Gwinnett Braves, Marksberry got a call to his coach’s office in late July.
“It was an off day for us, and I knew we were coming up on the trade deadline, so when I got that call, I just knew I’d been traded,” he recalls. “I’m walking toward the office thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, I’m going to have to move now. A new city. A new organization.’”
He even started the meeting with his coach with, “I’ve been traded, haven’t I?”
“No,” manager Brian Snitker replied. “You’re going to meet the team in Philly. You’re flying out in two hours.”
The Atlanta Braves were starting a three-game series on the road against the Philadelphia Phillies, and Marksberry was needed to shore up the bullpen. The news was like Christmas morning.
“I can’t describe the emotions I felt,” he says. “It was unreal. I just kept thinking, ‘I did it. I did it.’ No matter what happened going forward, I made it. Not a lot of people who play this game can say that.”
Marksberry became the first Camel to reach the majors since Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry pitched his last game in 1983. He was the eighth Camel all-time to play at that level. Since then, former Camel Jake Smith has pitched four games for the San Diego Padres in 2016.
The Braves wasted no time getting Marksberry to work, even after a flight delay made him late to his first game. That night, he was called to warm up in the bullpen with his team trailing 4-1, and he’d make his Major League debut the following night in the fifth inning, again with his team trailing the Phillies.
It wasn’t the ideal debut — he surrendered two hits, then a bases-loaded walk to All-Star Ryan Howard, before settling in and escaping the inning. He then followed up with an efficient scoreless sixth inning. He says the experience will be forever burned into his memory.
“I remember running out onto the field and looking around at the big lights and all the fans,” he says. “All these guys I watched on TV, now I was playing on the same field. I had to take a step back and a deep breath before I could throw a pitch.”
The night became even more surreal when he was approached by media from both Atlanta and Philadelphia, all eager to hear about what it’s like to take the stage for the first time.
“Unreal,” he says. “Absolutely unreal.”
After spending much of the 2016 season pitching very well in AAA and appearing in four games for the Braves, Marksberry posted an ominous tweet prior to a hospital visit in Orlando.
“I don’t want to sound selfish,” he wrote from his account SirLEFTYduro in late October, “but I really could use some prayers for my health right now. Non-baseball related. Thank you guys.”
That morning, he was feeling dizzy and couldn’t stay awake. He says it felt like his body was “just shutting down,” and he knew he needed help. With his roommates out — Marksberry was in Orlando to rehab an injured rotator cuff — he decided to hail a taxi. In the taxi, he began to go into seizures. The next thing he remembers, he was in the emergency room.
Marksberry was suffering from severe dehydration. His sodium levels were so low, his organs began to shut down. To prevent further damage or damage to his brain, doctors put him in a medically induced coma for about two days, pumping him full of liquids and electrolytes. He describes the coma as being in a dream-like state, the opposite of an “out-of-body” experience in that it felt more like an “inner-body experience.”
“I dreamt I could see everything going on in my body,” he says. “I remember people talking to me, hearing my parents’ voices, and all the while thinking I was in a dream and not being able to comprehend what was going on.”
It took over a month for Marksberry to get his strength back — on Day 1 he could barely walk, and by the end of November, he was back to sprinting and lifting weights. He says today he’s at 95 percent strength and close to returning to his weight pre-coma.
The experience, plus the injured shoulder, have made his potential return to the big leagues somewhat of a question mark. He remains in the Braves organization and is expected to be ready to pitch this spring, unless the shoulder needs surgery.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he says, “but I’m feeling good. I have to keep a positive outlook. I know eventually I’ll come back. It’s not my choice of when.”
The coma, the bus crash … they’ve made Marksberry stronger both mentally and spiritually, he says.
“If they’ve taught me anything, it’s that time is precious,” he says. “I’m more in tune with my body and my mind than I ever was, and I’m trying not to overthink things. If God wants to take me, he’ll take me. In the meantime, I’m going to work hard and keep fighting.”