The Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues are the lowest level of affiliated baseball in the United States. The games are played in temperatures that routinely exceed 100 degrees and are attended by scouts and perhaps a stray family member or two. But when infielder Ethan Skender took the field for the AZL Padres-2 club on June 19, it felt like the center of the baseball universe.
Skender, now 22, missed the last two-and-a-half years with knee ailments that resulted in three different surgeries. Finally, in 2019, Skender is healthy and is showing that his talent was worth the wait.
“[When I] stepped on the field in the Arizona League for the first time, it was like I made the big leagues,” said Skender before a recent game. “After the surgeries I’ve been through, that’s what it felt like to me. It meant a lot that I could get through those three surgeries.”
Skender opened his professional career with a pair of singles and a walk. He followed up with a two-homer game a few days later. After 14 games in the Arizona League, Skender was hitting .385/.441/.673 with three homers and 15 RBI. His hot start showed why the organization has remained patient with the Illinois-born infielder.
The Padres drafted Skender out of junior college in Florida in the 28th round in 2016 and paid him $465,000 to bypass his commitment to Arizona State. He was the last player from that draft class to sign. Perhaps fittingly, he was also the last signed player to see game action.
“My goal was to play professional baseball eventually,” said Skender. “I wanted to go to Arizona State but the Padres gave me the opportunity to go play professional baseball and I was very fortunate. I’m in a really good spot. If I didn’t have all the knee surgeries, who knows where I would be right now. I’m very grateful to the Padres for the opportunity.”
The injuries started shortly after Skender was drafted. He had his first surgery in 2016 to clean up knee cartilage. However, the second surgery was much more invasive and put Skender’s career in a rather uncertain place.
“The second surgery was called an allograft surgery. I basically had a hole in my kneecap. They took my cartilage and bone – just a small piece of it – and replaced it with bone and cartilage from a cadaver.”
“I was pretty grateful — obviously the family that I got that cartilage and bone from lost someone really close to them, so I was grateful to the family. I wrote them a really long letter. Obviously, they just went through a lot and I feel absolutely terrible for them, but I just wrote in the letter ‘I’m sorry you went through all of that but at the same time, your loved one has given me the chance to keep playing the game that I love.’ I couldn’t be more grateful to that person [and their family].”
While there wasn’t a lot of correspondence upfront, Skender is hoping to connect with the family that has helped revitalize his career in the future.
“I did [get a response]. It was very soon after. It was a pretty short response, which I understand. They didn’t give me much information. She just thanked me for writing the letter so it was a special moment. I have the letter hung up in my room. I was hoping one day to maybe get in contact with them and get that family out to some games.”
Despite the setbacks and the endless rehabilitation, Skender’s will never wavered. He was determined to get back on the field to show the organization what they had in him.
“Honestly, what kept me going was the potential that I know that I have when healthy. The Padres have treated me amazingly through this entire process, so I wanted to give them my all to get healthy and show [the organization] and everyone what I can do when healthy.”
“Ethan persevered through countless hours of rehab,” said Ben Sestanovich, the Padres’ Director of Player Development. “There were some stops and starts along the way, but Ethan and our medical group deserve a lot of credit for continuing to push forward. We’re all excited to see him back on the field.”
Skender’s success in the Arizona League led to a promotion to Fort Wayne, which was a homecoming of sorts. Skender was born in Metamora, Illinois which is a suburb of Peoria. When Skender made his debut in a TinCaps uniform, Fort Wayne was playing at home against Peoria.
“Being in the Midwest League is really cool because I grew up going to Peoria Chiefs games,” said Skender. “My family was able to come out and see me play. [Obviously], they haven’t seen me play in two-and-a-half years, so it meant a lot for them to be able to see me play.”
From the outside, it seemed like the organization may be conservative with Skender’s development because of the long layoff. However, Skender always set a goal of getting to Fort Wayne before the season was over.
“[Getting] to play in full-season ball was definitely part of the whole goal. Once I proved that I could go out and do my thing [fully] healthy, I knew they’d [give me an opportunity] in full-season level and I’m grateful for that.”
Skender immediately made an impact with the TinCaps after joining their roster on July 14th. He had a hit in his first game with Fort Wayne and scored the winning run in a game against Peoria on July 18th, when he stole home to cap off a nine-run comeback. Through his first 19 games with the TinCaps, Skender is hitting .307/.366/.400 with a homer and three stolen bases. For now, his continued health is the number one goal going forward.
“I just want to finish the season healthy. I’m having a blast. I got to third base the other day and I said to AC [TinCaps’ manager Anthony Contreras] ‘this is so awesome.’ It’s just so special to be here. I am having fun with it every day. My main goal is continuing to stay healthy, continue to play well and help the team win everyday.
“Then just go from there and have a really good offseason. I’ve never had an offseason because I’ve been hurt every year. It’s going to be really good to get a full offseason under my belt going into next year.
“I want to get my fielding where it needs to be, continue to grow my ability and strength at the plate and have a full offseason weight program. I’m excited to put on some weight and just polish up, perfect my craft and work on just getting better and go into spring training next year fully healthy and fully prepared.”