CHEYENNE – There was no wiping the smile off Kaden Anderson’s surgically reinforced face late Thursday night.
The senior had just caught all seven innings of Cheyenne American Legion Post 6’s 2-0 victory over Hastings, Nebraska. It was a game delayed by rain for nearly two full hours, which only ramped up Anderson’s anticipation of the many firsts he hoped to get out of the way: First inning at catcher, first foul tip back off his mask and first at-bat.
The 18-year-old experienced all three – and a play at the plate – during a game that took exactly as long to play as it was delayed.
“I was starting to think we weren’t going to get to play, but everything played out the way it was supposed to,” Anderson said. “I’m glad I was able to be back out there with my teammates and have a good game like that. It was exhilarating.
“I was nervous at the start of the day, but I tried to remind myself that I’ve been in this situation countless times, and this was any other game.”
That Anderson was even on the field Thursday night was astounding. His return came less than a month after he was struck in the face with a fastball while squared around to bunt.
“All I remember is squaring around to bunt and the ball coming out of the pitcher’s hand,” Anderson said. “All of a sudden, my ears started ringing, and I kind of blacked out for a second. It was bad.”
Anderson was back on the field two weeks to the day after he had a plate inserted below his left eye and two more around his nose. He jokes that his days of getting through airport security without delays might be over.
Even to those who know him well, Anderson’s face gives only the slightest hint of the trauma it has endured. His surgical team was able to reduce the invasiveness of the procedure by going in through his upper lip and the bottom of his left eye.
The Powers Field public address announcer started explaining Anderson’s journey to those in attendance as Post 6 took the field to start the third inning Thursday. Anderson had an idea of what was being said over the speakers, but wasn’t completely sure until pitcher Trenton Rodriguez stepped off the mound between warmup tosses and motioned for him to stand up and tip his cap.
Anderson got a warm ovation from the crowd, including Hastings designated hitter Jaxen Gangwish who was waiting to step into the right-handed batter’s box. Gangwish played a role in Anderson checking a first off his list when he tried to score from second on Nick Conant’s two-out single to center in the fifth. Post 6 center fielder Wyatt Haught fielded the ball and fired a one-hopper to home. Anderson caught the ball slightly up the third base line and applied a high tag, despite Gangwish’s best efforts to evade it.
“Seeing what happened to him shocked our entire team,” Rodriguez said. “He’s a team-first kind of guy who will always have your back. You can always count on him.
“I try to be pretty reserved out on the field and keep my emotions in, especially when I’m pitching. But knowing what he’s been through this summer and then seeing him succeed like that actually got me really hyped.”
Anderson now dons a catcher’s mask with springs around the cage to absorb the impact and disperse the energy of a foul tip straight back. He got to feel how the mask worked in the final inning of Thursday night’s win. Anderson also has a facemask on his batting helmet. He gave his new equipment trial runs during practices with Post 6’s junior varsity club Tuesday and Wednesday. The view from his new batting helmet was familiar from nearly a decade spent catching. The weight the facemask adds can hardly be felt in the batter’s box, he said.
In the third inning, Anderson pushed the fourth pitch of his first at-bat through the right side of Hastings’ infield. It was the second of four consecutive singles for Post 6. Third baseman Mason Tafoya capped that string when he roped a pitch down the left field line that scored Anderson and Kelden Hastings for the game’s only runs.
“I got a taste of everything,” Anderson said. “It was so hard sitting back and watching my teammates playing without me, but I had a lot of support from my teammates, my friends, my family, the fans here and even from my (WYCO Select) teammates in Laramie.”
Anderson initially thought his season might have come to an end when he was struck in the face June 4 in Rapid City, South Dakota. Those fears were put to rest during his first surgical consultation. The doctor told him there was a good chance he’d only miss a few weeks post-operation.
Post 6 manager Ty Lain also thought Anderson’s season may have ended prematurely. He smiled wide when he talked about the “fortitude and toughness” Anderson has displayed over the past month, including surprising the Sixers by watching them play last week in Omaha, Nebraska.
Lain admits he has second-guessed his decision to have Anderson square around to bunt with a 3-0 lead, no outs and runners on the corners in the first inning against a West Fargo, North Dakota, squad that advanced deep into the Central Plains Regional last summer.
“I could have let him swing away in that situation because he is completely capable of driving in those runs,” Lain said. “I decided to try a safety squeeze because it’s something we may need during a close game in the postseason. Seeing the ball run up in and hit him in the face was terrible.
“I’ve felt horrible about it, and beaten myself up about it, but I’ve also tried to remind myself that’s part of the game and those things happen occasionally. You just hate to see it happen to one of your guys – especially a guy like (Anderson) – because of a decision you made.”
Anderson, though, says Lain has nothing to feel guilty about.
“I don’t blame him for what happened. It was not his fault,” Anderson said. “He gave me a job to do, and I tried to do it to the best of my ability. It could have happened to anybody, but it happened to me.”