When Ryan Stewart broke his neck in a March 2011 baseball game, his family and friends were more concerned about his recovery than whether he would ever play baseball again. Two years to the day after that injury, Stewart hit a grand slam in his first Fallbrook High School varsity at-bat.
“One of the best moments I’ve had in coaching,” said Fallbrook varsity coach Mark DiBenedetti. “It brought tears to my eyes. I was so happy for him.”
Stewart was a freshman on Fallbrook’s junior varsity during the 2011 baseball season. On March 23, 2011, Stewart was playing catcher for the Warriors in a game at Del Norte, which has a spacious area between home plate and the backstop. Del Norte had a runner on second when a pitch went past Stewart and towards the backstop. Stewart recovered the ball. The runner ignored the third base coach’s sign to hold at third and sought to score. None of Stewart’s teammates were covering home plate, so Stewart dove to the plate. Stewart tagged the runner out, but the runner’s knee caught Stewart’s head and moved it forward.
Stewart’s father, Dale, was the public announcer for Fallbrook’s junior varsity home games. Dale Stewart is professionally a captain with the City of Oceanside’s fire department and had 30 years of paramedic experience. The elder Stewart took precautions to immobilize his son, and an ambulance maintained the immobilization precautions while transporting Ryan Stewart to Scripps Hospital La Jolla.
Computer-assisted tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans revealed fractures of the C4 and C5 vertebrae and that the fracture was approximately one millimeter away from Stewart’s spinal cord. Stewart spent the night in the trauma room and had surgery March 25. The C5 vertebra was severely fractured and was removed. A spacer was inserted, and the C4 and C6 vertebrae were fused together. Stewart remained in intensive care through March 27 and was released from the hospital the night of March 28. Stewart remained in a rigid cervical collar; because the injuries also included muscle and ligament tears the range of motion for his neck had not been determined at the time of his release from the hospital.
Stewart retained all lower body mobility and sought a return to playing baseball. “I wanted to come back really quick,” he said.
Stewart believed he could play again in 2011 with intense physical therapy, although he was not ready to return to the diamond by the end of the season. Stewart joined the team for games that year. “It was a good experience to be there and support them,” he said.
After surgery and some club play during summer 2011, Stewart spent all of 2012 on Fallbrook’s junior varsity team.
Stewart, who attended Zion Lutheran School through sixth grade and was at Potter Junior High School for seventh and eighth grades, played Fallbrook Youth Baseball from the T-ball through Pony League levels. He was an outfielder as well as a catcher prior to his high school career. He still has not received medical clearance to return to catching. “If I had it my way that’s probably what I’d try to do,” he said.
That made Stewart an outfielder for 2012, as well as for this season. “That’s probably where I’m going to play for the rest of high school,” he said.
Stewart has started some games in the outfield, although he is not a regular. “I get my spot starts here and there,” he said. “It’s more me wanting to contribute when I can.”
That includes pinch-hitting and pinch-running appearances.
“I want to go out there and at least have a productive at-bat,” he said.
Stewart had been a pinch-runner and had played outfield prior to Fallbrook’s March 23, 2013, home game against Oceanside. The Warriors entered that contest – which closed out the North County Conference Tournament for Fallbrook – with a five-game losing streak.
The game between the Warriors and Pirates was scoreless until the bottom of the fourth inning when James Thomas singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch, moved up an additional 90 feet on Christian Soto’s sacrifice bunt, and scored when the Pirates unsuccessfully tried to throw out Thomas after Connor Stotz hit a ground ball to the infield.
The Warriors still had that 1-0 lead entering the bottom of the sixth inning. Soto walked, and DiBenedetti inserted Nick DeVera as a pinch-runner. Cedric Brown also walked. Bryson Spagnuolo singled to the right side to load the bases.
Oceanside coach Dave Barrett replaced starting pitcher Eddie Gonzales with reliever Keanu Aguilera. DiBenedetti then called on Stewart to pinch-hit for Birch Anson with one out. “I needed to put a ball in the outfield to score a run,” Stewart said. “I was looking for a pretty good pitch to hit.”
Aguilera started Stewart with a fastball on the inside, which Stewart hit into foul territory. “His first swing he hit a long foul ball and I knew he was on the pitcher,” DiBenedetti said.
Stewart then laid off Aguilera’s outside slider to bring the count to 1-1.
“I knew he was going to come to the plate with something good,” Stewart said.
“That third pitch he threw pretty much down the middle,” Stewart said. “Just put a good swing on it and it went over.”
The ball went over the left field fence. “It was a blast. It was a no-doubt home run. It was just gone. Everybody erupted because everybody was just very happy for him,” DiBenedetti said.
“I was extremely happy for him because he’s a great kid. He’s a solid young man,” DiBenedetti said. “He’s been through a lot. People forget what he went through was severe.”
The grand slam turned a 1-0 lead into a 5-0 cushion. “It gave a little bit of room going in pitching that last inning, so it was definitely a relief that he did it,” said Fallbrook pitcher Matt Jepsen.
Jepsen pitched a complete-game shutout and allowed only one hit. He struck out seven batters while walking four during his seven innings on the mound. “I wasn’t really focused on it, just made pitches and tried to get some outs,” he said of throwing a one-hitter.
“Matt pitched great. He’s been solid for us all season,” Stewart said. “He was good last year and this year he’s just really turned it on and shown everybody what he can do and how good of a pitcher he really is.”
The 5-0 score became the final result. “I felt like that was one of our good team wins,” Stewart said.
“We really had to kind of come together as a team,” Stewart said. “We went out there and we did it as a team.”