Sharp A Success Story Waiting To Happen

It wasn't all that long that Hayden Sharp was boasting one of the highest ceilings in the entire Yankee farm system. A two-sport star in high school, he hit a mental wall in the Gulf Coast League last year and surprisingly retired from the game to try his hand at football. His retirement didn't last long, however, and now he's back with the Yankees as a success story waiting to happen.

The 6-foot-6 right-hander was in the midst of his third professional season last year when he abruptly decided to call it quits.

"Last year I was injured," he explained. "I went down with an elbow injury. It was around mid-July, after I started playing catch and all that I had to think for a little while. I probably got a little down on myself. I started thinking that I'm still young and I could still play college football, and that was my original plan anyway; everyone knew I was originally going to college to play football.

"I always told myself if baseball didn't work out that I'd go back to playing football. I thought it was the end of my career because of the injury, I didn't know why. It was just one of those deals where I couldn't get out a funk. My mindset was all messed up."

It wasn't as if he was pitching poorly either. He had posted a 4.18 ERA in the Gulf Coast League last season but it was also his third straight year in the Gulf Coast League and he then sustained an injury to boot.

The elbow injury in itself wasn't serious enough to require Tommy John surgery. It was a subplexed ulnar nerve, a condition that causes the nerve to roll over the bone and cause some pain when the elbow is bent.

"Some guys can pitch with it," he said. "From my understanding a lot of guys have it. But some guys can pitch with it and some guys can't. If you remember Kevin Mahoney, he had the surgery.

"It was one of those things where you're like do you want to fix it or do you want to get it stronger, and see if you can play with it basically. I was working with arm angle stuff a lot last year, just trying to get a consistent arm slot, and in that process I messed up my mechanics and I don't think my body reacted too well to me changing my arm slot."

Dealing with a nagging injury and perhaps not advancing through the minor leagues as quickly as he had hoped combined to put him in bad mental state. He was second-guessing his initial decision to forego football and decided to then give it a try.

He attended Northeastern State University in his home state of Oklahoma but registered too late to participate in fall football. He did, however, play with the team during all of its spring practices before getting a call from the Yankee scout who had initially signed him.

"I had talked to Mark Newman about [retiring] and he was fine with it," Sharp recounted. "He didn't give me any grief over it. He understood, it happens. I [went back] and tried the football deal. I had kept in touch with Mark through the scholarship program and I ended up talking to him on the phone because my scout, Dennis Woody, had called me and said my name had come up. So I called Newman and we talked for a while and when I went down [to Tampa] to visit I had a meeting with Mark and we decided I should give it another shot.

"That's how it played out. It turned out to be a great decision so far. I like it. I feel like it's going better this time because I'm a little more mature. I'm actually a lot more mature. I had to grow up a lot over the past year. I feel like I can take it now, that I'm ready."

After meeting with Newman towards the end of Spring Training, he reported to the Yankee minor league complex on April 18th and began his throwing program. He did that for three weeks and was getting ready to pitch in some actual games once again.

"It felt great," he said. "It was nice to be back. I don't know if it was just a mindset deal but I was happy to be playing baseball again. It felt like it was the right decision."

But right before the comeback story was about to unfold, Sharp and the Yankees hit a snag.

"We ran into a problem. I don't know if I was supposed to be going to Staten Island or Charleston once I was done with my throwing program, but once I was done I was getting ready to be put on a roster and when they were going to make the move I was suspended 60 games because of an issue with my retirement."

A little known rule stipulates that once a player has voluntarily decided to retire and stays retired for 60 days, upon his return he must serve a mandatory 60-game suspension. It meant no Staten Island, no Charleston. He couldn't even pitch in Extended Spring Training games. He was limited to pitching in simulated games only and did so two to three times per week during his suspension.

"I think I took it really well," he said. "I honestly didn't expect them to send me anywhere. I honestly expected to stay in rookie ball. I didn't expect a major move just because of the factors of me leaving -- they had signed new kids in the offseason, the draft was in the process of happening -- I didn't expect much.

"But I was throwing really well and I was wanting to go somewhere, but once I found out [about the suspension] I took a step back and told myself, and continue to tell myself, it's a success story waiting to happen. I just have to keep my head on straight and keep doing what I'm doing."

He had to wait until August 12th, some 13 months after his retirement, to make his official comeback debut and he tossed three shutout innings against the GCL Phillies.

"It was fun. It felt like I was finally back. It was good to pitch in a game that mattered after two months of sim games and not being hurt. It felt good to get into a game."

Seeing his fastball begin to get back to its former heights, hitting 95-96 mph this past season, Sharp not only believes his stuff is back but it is better than when he initially left.

"I do. Velocity-wise, probably not, but it's something I can build on. I've developed a changeup, finally. Before I didn't really have an offspeed pitch, something to throw behind in the count but I have my strikeout pitch which is my slider and now I'm really confident in my changeup.

"I feel like I can throw it when I'm behind in the count. It's really helped me a lot. I definitely have a lot more confidence in my pitches for sure."

He sat in the 93-96 mph range before his retirement and, while he sat mostly in the 92-93 mph range this year in the Gulf Coast League, he can't help but be encouraged that the power is nearly fully back.

"Exactly, that's what I try to tell myself, it's a building year for me. I'm not trying to be in the big leagues by the end of the year. I just have to work on my stuff.

"It was great to be able to work with 'Pav' [Greg Pavlik] down there. He's one of the rehab guys down there and he has a lot of knowledge obviously. It was good to be there the whole year and pick his brain."

It was just a bad time for him a year ago but now in a better mental place and back home with the Yankees, Sharp, who no longer feels any pain with the ulnar nerve, is putting that behind him and ready to put the finishing touches on a potential success story.

"I am, I feel like I'm doing what I should be doing now. Before I was unsure and now I'm not at all.

"I couldn't be more excited, honestly. I feel like I have the mindset going into the offseason, work hard, and get into Spring Training in peak condition. I know what to do to get ready for Spring Training. I'm not going in there blind. I'm just going to follow the [offseason] program to a 'T'.

"I feel like the mental aspect is helping me out more than the physical. I've always been a pretty physical person. I've always been big and strong-armed but it doesn't really matter if you can't have the mental approach. I'm happy," he concluded.

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