The Gophers were teetering from Big Ten baseball tournament contention last spring, when Dan Motl, their star-crossed center fielder from Burnsville, came to the plate in a moment that encapsulated the season.
April 19, 2015, was an overcast afternoon at Siebert Field. Motl’s parents were just settling into their seats.
Leading off the first inning, Motl squared to bunt, just as Penn State freshman Nick Distasio delivered his first pitch. The 86-miles-per-hour fastball headed straight for Motl’s eyes. The righthanded hitter tried turning his head, but it was too late, as the baseball smashed into his left cheek bone.
Kevin and Mary Motl were shocked, watching their son lay face down in the dirt.
“It had to be hard for everyone at Siebert,” Kevin Motl said. “I saw Dan move his legs a little bit, so I felt good about that. We ran down to the field, and the trainer, Eli Mansfield, gave us a report right there that helped us feel at ease. It was clear Dan would need surgery, but he still had his eyesight.”
Thirteen months later, Motl has bounced back in a big way, and so have the Gophers, who won their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2010. After missing the conference tournament entirely last year, Minnesota opens this one as the top seed Wednesday in Omaha, facing eighth-seeded Iowa.
Following a series of injuries earlier in college — including a broken collarbone as a freshman and a broken wrist as a sophomore — Motl has stayed healthy as a senior, batting .335 with a .401 on-base percentage and a team-high 18 doubles.
“Some might think that I might be scared of a ball at the plate, but I’m not,” said Motl, a second-team All-Big Ten selection. “It’s just a baseball, and if it hits me in the face again, it happens.”
Motl had seen video of Marlins All-Star slugger Giancarlo Stanton getting drilled in the face with an 88-mph fastball from Milwaukee’s Mike Fiers in September 2014. Stanton had surgery to repair multiple facial fractures and returned for spring training last year.
With four facial fractures of his own, Motl took some time to recover, too — 15 whole days.
It took five days just for the swelling to subside enough for surgery. The surgeon, who has helped Wild players recover from hockey injuries, screwed a titanium plate to Motl’s cheek bone.
Any concern Motl’s friends had for his psyche was quickly quelled by humor. The day he got beaned, he posted a selfie on Twitter, with one eye swollen shut and a cheek the size of a grapefruit.
“Seems fitting, I play for the Gophers huh,” Motl wrote, comparing his oversized cheek to Goldy Gopher’s.
Someone asked what happened, and Motl replied: “Fastball to the face. Not ideal.”
He missed only one Big Ten series, saying he would have returned sooner, but he had to wait for the stitches inside his mouth to heal. By May 5, he was back in the lineup against North Dakota State, wearing a specialized facemask.
“You would worry about anybody, why wouldn’t you?” coach John Anderson said. “That’s a big thing to overcome, and I’ve never seen any evidence that it’s been a problem for him.”
That first game back, Motl led off and grounded out to third base. Next time up?
“I got hit right in the elbow with a fastball,” he said. “Everyone was kind of laughing, so it was fine.”
To that point, Motl’s college career hadn’t gone like he envisioned. His dad had played quarterback for Wisconsin from 1978-80, and his maternal grandfather, Fred Rehm, had been a starting guard on the Badgers’ 1941 national championship basketball team.
Wisconsin is the only Big Ten school without a baseball program, but Motl gladly stayed in Minnesota after twice earning all-state honors for Burnsville.
The Gophers had won 22 previous Big Ten titles and were regular NCAA tournament participants before making their last appearance in 2010. Before this year, it was fair to wonder if they could recapture that success.
Motl credits pitching coach Todd Oakes for teaching the team invaluable lessons during his four-year battle with leukemia.
“Every time I got hurt, I just always thought of T.O., and used that as perspective,” Motl said.
With his facial fractures healed, Motl spent last summer playing for Willmar in the Northwoods League, batting .312. He returned to campus and helped the team’s other seniors galvanize the squad during offseason workouts.
Motl isn’t the only Gopher with a comeback story. Matt Fielder and Dalton Sawyer, the team’s top two starting pitchers, survived car accidents earlier in their careers. Catcher Austin Athmann, who’s batting .376 with 11 home runs, overcame elbow and hip injuries. Senior pitchers Jordan Jess and Ty McDevitt recovered from arm injuries.
When Oakes’ family placed him in home hospice last week, the team wanted to send him a tribute video. The players turned to Motl, who honed his video skills working as an intern with the Gopher Digital Productions department on his way to a sports management degree.
Motl had each player speak directly into the camera and send Oakes a message, which he later edited and set to music.
In his own message to Oakes, Motl said, “You taught me to stay positive. Whenever I was feeling sad or bad, I knew you were going through something worse. I just want to say, ‘I love you.’ And we’re going to get that Big Ten championship for you.”