Heston Kjerstad tried to adopt some new hobbies over the past year, but none of them succeeded in capturing his interest. He was too busy thinking about baseball, watching baseball, wishing for baseball.
“The one thing I wanted to do was play baseball, and I couldn’t do it,” Kjerstad said. “Nothing else really satisfied that.”
Since the Orioles selected him second overall in the 2020 draft, Kjerstad has yet to play a professional game for the organization. Before he could participate in the team’s instructional camp last year, he was diagnosed with myocarditis — heart inflammation — and the ailment lingered, keeping him from joining a Baltimore affiliate in 2021.
But after a season spent rehabbing, the slugging outfielder is healthy and among the club’s top prospects involved in this year’s instructional camp in Sarasota, Florida. And at 22 years old, Kjerstad believes he’ll be more than capable of making up for lost time.
“That journey of going through all that over the past year, it changes you, for sure,” Kjerstad said Friday on a Zoom call. “And I would say it changed me for the better, especially mentally. It sharpened my mind. It’s really a humbling experience to go through something like that at a young age, especially at the point in the career that I was at. I was ready to jump in the minor leagues and work my way up to the big leagues as soon as I could, and I had to put a pause on that. It was a challenge, but now, I’m back where I wanted to be.
“I’m feeling like my old self again.”
That’s welcome news for an Orioles organization that surprisingly took Kjerstad second overall with the view that he would someday be a powerful left-handed bat, serving as a fixture in the middle of their order. As a collegiate player at Arkansas, he hit .344/.423/.589 with 36 home runs and 128 RBIs in 148 games across three seasons.
Kjerstad believes that once he finally takes the field as a professional in 2022, he’ll be able to match that level of performance. But that wasn’t always the case. Although he said he “saw the light at the end of the tunnel the whole time” throughout his treatment and never doubted whether he would return, he admitted he questioned what kind of player he would be when he did.
“The doctors were reassuring,” Kjerstad said. “‘This is short term and we’re going to get you back on the field. It’s just a matter of when, but through this time, let’s focus on your health. We’re gonna get you healthy, and then after that you’ll focus on how you play baseball.’
“Anytime you go through injuries or setbacks, it’s natural as a human to wonder, ‘Am I going to be the same? How will I be?’ But honestly, I think I’m going to be better for it. Mentally, I went through a lot through all this, and I think it’s going to give me a little bit of an edge in my game. I have a different perspective on everything now and more appreciation for playing the game and being healthy and just being able to do what I love every day.”
Those who have been around him throughout this process have seen that mindset take shape. Right-handed pitcher Carter Baumler, drafted four rounds after Kjerstad, suffered an elbow injury at last year’s instructional camp that caused him to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss 2021, as well. While the two members of the Orioles’ 2020 draft class rehabbed, Baumler said Kjerstad’s personality shined through.
“I think the best thing about Heston and being around him is that he’s got such a positive attitude all the time for someone going through a kind of a struggle like him and maintaining such a good attitude around the whole thing,” Baumler said. “It’s pretty cool to see, and it definitely sheds on everybody else. He’s a really positive dude. Full of energy, full of laughter, and it’s a really good thing to be around.”
Kjerstad said seeing Boston Red Sox pitcher and former Orioles prospect Eduardo Rodríguez return from his own bout of myocarditis this season gave him hope and confidence, but he didn’t personally know any other players who dealt with the issue. Instead, he leaned on his family, as well as athletes like Baumler who dealt with other injuries or conditions that kept them out for extended time.
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“It’s kind of the bonding experience,” Kjerstad said, “because you’re at low points with some other guys and you’re able to talk about it with them and you get to know each other and create a bond that’s really going to help us through our careers.”
Likewise, when the Orioles’ 2021 draft class arrived in Sarasota to begin their pro careers, Kjerstad was able to bond with them, as well. Colton Cowser, who Baltimore took fifth overall this year, played on a national team with Kjerstad while they were in college, and they’ve been able to build on that connection during camp, with their rooms right across the hall from each other’s.
“They understand,” Kjerstad said. “They’ll probably be at a low point in their career, and they’re there for you because they’re gonna want you there for them when they’re in your shoes.
“It’s always helpful to have someone to reach out to or to talk with because things can get tough for anyone and everyone, and eventually, I’ll probably be doing that for some guys in the future.”
Kjerstad isn’t certain of his condition’s origin, though he said it’s possible it was a side effect of contracting COVID-19, which is how Rodriguez’s heart inflammation began. He suffered no symptoms, with doctors simply saying baseball would have to wait.
He’s thankful the waiting is finally over.
“It’s not anything you ever envision happening along your plan and journey to your goals you have set, but it’s things you just got to fix, you’ve got to take head on,” Kjerstad said. “We all face obstacles here and there through our careers, and this happens to be one of mine. It was a challenge getting through it, for sure. And now that we’re on the other side, I’m really happy to have it in the past and ready to move forward.”