Hunter Shanklin toed the rubber in the bullpen down the left-field line late Wednesday afternoon, before Warren Central (Indianapolis, Ind.)’s baseball home opener against Pike. A man with a camera approached the chain-link fence a few feet away and got Hunter’s attention before he fired another warm-up pitch to catcher Brant Keeling.
“Take this,” Michael Shanklin said, flipping his son a bracelet made up of tiny plastic baseballs.
Hunter smiled and dropped the bracelet in his back pocket. He toed the rubber again, wrapped his left hand around the ball in his glove and fired another pitch to Keeling.
Michael Shanklin was the only person happier than Hunter himself to see No. 1 in black and gold take the mound Wednesday. Not a day goes by that he does not question himself for pushing Hunter to stick with football, even when his son told him — multiple times — that he was ready to give it up and focus on baseball.
“Don’t give up now,” Michael told him. “It’s going to pay off in the end.”
And it looked like he was right. Shanklin, a 5-10, 160-pound senior reserve receiver, had caught 11 passes all season until the Class 6A semistate against Center Grove on a brisk night in mid-November. With star receiver David Bell sidelined with an ankle injury, Shanklin made one of the biggest plays of the season, a 35-yard fourth-quarter reception from Jayden George to set up Romeir Elliott’s go-ahead touchdown in a 27-20 win.
If it had only ended there.
Two weeks later, in the 6A championship game against Carmel at Lucas Oil Stadium, George launched a 40-yard bomb to Shanklin in the second play of the second quarter. The ball fell to the turf, incomplete. Shanklin fell, too, between Carmel defenders Owen Schafer and William Padgett. Shanklin screamed holding, his left leg, as Schafer and Padgett waved for the trainers. The video board briefly showed Shanklin, his left tibia and fibula both broken.
Baseball was immediately on Hunter Shanklin’s mind, even on the ambulance ride to Methodist Hospital. “The whole ride he kept saying, ‘Is my baseball career over?’” Michael Shanklin said. He told him “no” over and over, though he was not certain himself. The doctors told him, after surgery, that he might be able to make it back for his senior baseball season, though it might be early June before he was ready.
“The doctor said I would be able to play, but I’d have to work very hard for it,” Hunter Shanklin said. “I listened to him and I worked very hard for it. And here am I now. It showed me not to give up. It showed me to keep on fighting.”
So there he was Wednesday, barely four months after that gruesome injury on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, batting leadoff and pitching in the home opener against Pike. Before the game, close friend Zachary Cline, a senior outfielder, jogged out to the bullpen and stood next to Shanklin as he warmed up.
“I was just making sure he felt good,” said Cline, who was at the hospital the night of Shanklin’s injury. “I just wanted to check on him and make sure his leg felt good and making sure he’s ready to go. He said he was perfectly fine and he was excited to get on the mound.”
Shanklin was cleared to play at the beginning of March under one stipulation: No feet-first slides. His leg strength has not fully returned, and his conditioning is behind where he wants it to be. But the fact that he is out there at all is an inspiration to those who saw him on the turf that night on Thanksgiving weekend.
“Hunter is a like a son to me,” third-year coach Emmitt Carney said. “We joke and cut up and I treat him like a little brother sometimes. But the thing about Hunter is he’s a special kid. When I saw him in the hospital, the first thing he was worried about was baseball. I told him don’t worry about that for now, but this will show how much you love baseball. From day one, he’s had that mindset.”
Shanklin, an honorable mention all-Marion County selection as a junior, was admittedly nervous. His first pitch was belted for a triple to center field by Pike senior Nick Banks. He walked three batters in the first inning and allowed two runs.
But Shanklin settled in. He threw 85 pitches over four innings, striking out six. In the fifth inning, he took his normal spot in center field. Warren Central trailed 4-2.
The best moment, for Hunter, was at the plate. After an infield single in the first inning, a lineout to left field in the third and a groundout to second base in the fourth, Shanklin came up on the bottom of the sixth inning with runners on second and third with one out.
He smoked a double to the left-center gap to score both runs and cruised into second with a standup double and a smile.
“I saw two people on base, looked at the scoreboard and knew it was my time to shine,” Shanklin said. “I had to step up some kind of way.”
Warren Central lost, 6-4. But it was impossible to see this as anything but a huge victory for Hunter Shanklin. His father, Michael, was granted a few hours off from his second shift job to watch Hunter pitch. He wears his own bracelet with tiny plastic baseballs as a reminder of his son’s journey back to the field.
“Our relationship has become a lot stronger through this,” Michael Shanklin said. “His whole outlook has changed. He doesn’t take anything for granted. Baseball was almost taken from him. When something like that happens, it does change you. He’s more driven now than I have ever seen him.”
Hunter left the field with his left leg wrapped. He said it felt “about 75 percent” after playing a full game. But his smile said he would not trade that 75 percent for anything.
“These guys were there for me when I was injured,” Hunter said, nodding to his teammates. “So I wanted to be there for them during the season.”