When fifteen year old New Jersey high school baseball player, Jake Mesar, slid into third base during a 2012 Junior Varsity (JV) game, he most definitely was not thinking about the possible fallout of his legs falling into the dirt and digging into the rubber bag. However, that slide would unknowingly change his future for the rest of his life, as he received a severe broken ankle. Yes, that type of injury is painful, and yes, his injury did require multiple surgeries, but it will not be the story of the broken ankle told by those involved. Instead, people will tell the story of the high school coach who told Mesar to slide, and the lawsuit that followed the incident, seven years later.
A broken ankle is one of the more common injuries that athletes suffer, but there has never been an aftermath quite like this. After seven years of pain, rehab, and an apparent state of Depression, Mesar finally decided to take action against the man he held responsible for his injury, his third base coach John Suk. Mesar and his team of lawyers sued Suk for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damages from what Suk called a “bang-bang play.” Mesar insisted that Suk did not tell him to slide within a reasonable amount of time, thus causing him to get injured. In his defense, Suk said that the negligence claim made by Mesar would create “heavy scrutiny for everything that happens” under the coaching profession and there was no real way to prevent the grim outcome of the play.
When questioned by Mesar’s lawyers, Suk said, “[Mesar] was running full speed around the bases. He — his eyes were not affixed on the ball. He did not see the ball coming. I did. Therefore, he was running full speed, but upon my decision and telling him at a safe distance to slide, he was able to do so.” Ultimately, the jury did not find enough convincing information to punish Suk and he walked away with innocence, but also with legal fees and a fractured reputation. Glenelg Senior, Cole Miller, says, “I understand why [Mesar’s] upset, but at the end of the day every baseball coach is going to tell you to slide. It’s just a freak accident, not the coach's fault.”
Before the trial, before the three surgeries, before the slide, Mesar was just a typical, young high schooler who had aspirations of playing on his school’s varsity baseball team. Those aspirations were just beginning to take form, with Mesar playing his first game as a player on the JV team for Bound Brook High School, until Suk told him to slide into third base. The timing of the slide is critical, as sliding too early or too late could result in an out, or in Mesar’s case an injury. Glenelg’s Varsity shortstop, Ben Duignan, says “You slide before the base in order to get down and not get tagged. You start sliding before the base around eight to ten feet. Usually the coach will tell you to get down twenty to thirty feet before the base, [but] it’s still the player’s responsibility to get down in time.” The player’s responsibility. Not the coach’s responsibility. The player’s responsibility.
Following the lawsuit, the concern now shifts from an isolated case to a potential repeated abuse of power by high school players and parents that could hurt hundreds of coaches across the country. “As a high school coach, you ask the question; ‘would this happen to me?’ I would hope it doesn't, but ultimately I really don’t know. Sports can be dangerous. Soccer and football have tons of concussion related injuries. Baseball has seen more Tommy John injuries in the last few years. Parents and the athlete need to understand the inherent risks possible of playing sports,” says Glenelg Varsity Baseball Coach, Steven Tiffany. Mesar and his lawyers claimed that Suk did not have Mesar’s safety in mind when Suk told him to slide, but the reality is coaches always have concerns over their players’ safety. Coaches, such as Tiffany, specifically design practice schedules and drills to prevent injuries, and as he puts it, “Player safety is the top priority for any coach, of any sport. Though winning games is important, the safety of all players trumps any victory.” Even if an arrogant coach decided to not place player safety at a high priority, there are waivers in place to ensure that coaches are not held responsible for accidental injuries.
With no contradicting evidence, it appears that Suk had player safety in mind just as much, if not more, than Coach Tiffany. No sport is without injuries, but ninety nine percent of all coaches truly care about the health of their players. And while Mesar’s doctor, Robert Rozbruch, does say that Mesar “will never recover fully,” the question has to be asked; should a coach really be punished for coaching?
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