Orioles outfielder Austin Hays was forced to consider that dad strength was real this spring after he hit a home run in the first game his newborn son attended.
He’d spent the winter surrounded by a more undeniable kind: a mother fighting for her baby, and a baby fighting to come home with his family.
That spring training game in early March was only weeks after his wife Samantha’s Feb. 12 due date for Levi Austin Jerald Hays. By then, Levi was over 2 months old, having defied the odds of a complicated pregnancy and tense December to attend one of his father’s games for the first time.
What are the chances the home run ball Austin swatted that day would be retrieved by a ballpark paramedic and delivered to mother and child behind home plate? What are the odds Levi would have been there at all, considering the timeline doctors gave when he was born?
Samantha’s first Mother’s Day will be occasion to think back on it all as she and Austin enjoy the Orioles’ matinee and cherish how far Levi has come.
“He’s a little fighter, and a little miracle baby since Day One,” Austin said.
Samantha said: “It’s something that I’ll never take for granted that’s for sure.”
They’d come a long way since a 16-year-old Austin sent a Facebook message to Samantha, a fellow student that he’d never met at Spruce Creek High in Florida. He was at the school with an out-of-zone variance in the IT academy, confined to a single classroom all day. Samantha, a track and cross country runner, didn’t know anything about him. They went ice skating on a modern-day blind date, still having never actually met before they hit the ice.
They’ve been together since, with Samantha studying communications at Valencia College in Orlando near Austin at Seminole State College before he transferred to Jacksonville. The Orioles drafted him in 2016 and he skyrocketed to the majors a year later.
Injuries kept him from being back for good until the end of the 2019 season, but by then Samantha was on the journey with him. While he was at Double-A Bowie one summer, she and Hunter Harvey’s fiancée, Summer, started a macramé wall art business and sold them at festivals around Annapolis.
Back home in Florida, she’s a self-described beach bum. He likes to hunt. They learned last May that there would be a lot less free time: they were expecting their first child.
An early doctor’s appointment revealed a condition that led to a high probability of early labor. Hers was a high-risk pregnancy, and “having to layer COVID on top of it could be something scary to deal with,” Samantha said.
She was between Florida and Baltimore during the shortened baseball season, coming north between appointments. Even when he was home, the pandemic meant Austin couldn’t accompany her to the appointments anyway, so she’d have to relay what the ultrasound showed about their baby.
Hays returned home in October for a gender reveal with their parents. When the blue confetti popped out, Hays raised his arms in celebration. Samantha covered her face in excitement. Even then at four months from the due date, they prepared for early labor
“We just continued to pray that it wouldn’t happen too early,” Austin said.
Samantha’s water broke in early December, at 30 weeks. At a hospital near their house in Daytona Beach, Samantha got an IV with medication to slow and eventually stop her contractions. Doctors gave steroids for the baby’s lungs and heart in case he was born immediately, then transported her by ambulance to AdventHealth Orlando. Labor stopped, and Samantha was put on bed rest.
They were told every extra day in the womb could mean three fewer days in the newborn intensive care unit. Even hours made a difference.
Samantha held onto that truth dearly, reminding herself that it was temporary and the end goal was a healthy child. At first, she said, they got by on adrenaline. Eleven days in, a doctor told her she’d be there for another month.
“That was very difficult to kind of process because 11 days already seems like a month,” she said. “To have to do three to four more weeks…”
“That’s where it was very hard with COVID, and it was very exhausting for her,” Austin said.
The days blended together. They put a memory foam mattress pad on Samantha’s bed, and Austin had the tiny couch. He swatted away her suggestions to go sleep in their bed at home and take care of his body.
“That’s just the kind of guy Austin is,” she said.
They’d wake at 6 a.m., eat their hospital breakfast with some coffee, and Austin would leave to train. The only other visitor allowed in the hospital was Samantha’s mother, Sherry Uzzle, who commuted 90 minutes each way to be with them as Austin was away.
His mother, Terrie, was among the many who visited during Samantha’s daily hour of garden privileges. Samantha said there was a rabbit who lived in the garden that they’d seek out each day and give snacks.
“I kind of looked forward to going down and seeing this little rabbit,” she said.
The rest of her day was spent in the room, which Austin decorated with a live Christmas tree and lights to make a little more homey. The nurses were quick to lift their spirits, and they grew so fond of each other that they’re still In touch.
Samantha and Austin watched Netflix and kept track of the various games they’d play, with Austin narrowly winning more games of Uno, Samantha taking the Phase 10 crown and Austin running away with the Yahtzee title.
Levi was born Dec. 22 at 1:19 p.m., weight 4 pounds, 11 ounces and 17 1/2 inches long. Doctors told them to expect two months in the NICU as he built to what would have been full term. Still, Levi’s growth during bed rest meant his heart and lungs functioned well outside. He was able to latch and eat the day he was born.
Samantha was discharged on Christmas Eve, but Levi stayed behind in the NICU. It was “extremely emotional,” she said. Their families had cleaned and decorated their house for both the baby shower she missed for her early labor and Christmas, with the shower gifts under the tree. They hung signs welcoming Levi home.
But they went to the hospital every day, spending 12 hours with Levi before going home, eating, and going to bed. The more time they spent with him, the sooner he’d come home.
Samantha said: “I always say that Levi has always beat the odds because I have a condition where I was at a very high risk for premature labor, and they say 75% of women with my condition have a C-section. We avoided that. And after your water breaks, 75% of the time the baby is born within seven days. He made it three weeks. In the NICU, they said you’re going to be here for probably two months. We got home in 14 days. It’s crazy.”
They soon settled into new-parent life. Austin hit and worked out at home, put together furniture, and tagged in between the frequent feedings to give his wife a break. Spring training came quickly, and eventually she joined him in Sarasota. Their first game was that spring training game against the Phillies where Hays hit a home run and Samantha got the ball.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
Hays’ father asked for it from the bullpen, then had a paramedic bring it to Samantha behind home plate.
Now, they’re in Baltimore with a host of other new parents on the roster as they navigate parenthood during a baseball season. They all reached out as the Hays family waited for Levi’s arrival, and haven’t stopped helping since.
“We definitely have like a mother’s support group,” Samantha said. “Whenever I have questions, I’m texting Caroline Means — what do I do in this situation? She’s just learning it, too. She’s maybe five days ahead of the game so definitely, we’re all figuring it out together.
“Then you have Michelle Ruiz and Paige Fry, their sons are a year old and they’ve been through it all as well.”
Play dates will have to wait until COVID restrictions are relaxed, but for now, they wave to each other from their seating pods behind home plate at Camden Yards.
It wasn’t how they’d planned it, but after a nervy offseason, mother and child at the ballpark on a spring afternoon while dad wears the home whites was the vision from the start. That’s where Samantha and Levi, and so many others baseball moms, will be Sunday for what will be a meaningful Mother’s Day for so many, including the Hays family.
“It’s exciting that we get to experience all of Levi’s milestones together as a family and as COVID restrictions are getting lighter, that we can have all these moments like normal with our friends and our family and I can bring him to the ballgames and he can see what his dad does and we can have all these memories and experiences together as a family,” Samantha said.