LEWISTOWN - Baseball is a game filled with inspiring comeback stories.
Not all of them involve late-inning heroics. Players have bounced back from broken bones, addictions or debilitating diseases to prove their best games were still ahead of them.
After stepping away from the game due to a shoulder injury and personal tragedy, Lewistown Area High School product Kalen Gearhart is ready to write his own comeback story.
As a high school sophomore, Gearhart was a much-heralded member of the Panthers' baseball team that won the PIAA Class AA championship in 2002. Two years later, the 18-year-old right-hander was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers as an undrafted free agent. Gearhart spent four years in the Dodgers' farm system, appearing in 67 games and posting a 5-3 record with a 3.82 ERA.
His once promising career spiraled out of control when personal tragedy struck in 2006. Within a nine-month period, his father committed suicide and his cousin was killed in a car accident.
In 2008, with a sore shoulder and having lost his passion for pitching, Gearhart left the Dodgers. After spending part of two seasons with the Camden Riversharks of the independent Atlantic League, he was out of the game completely.
Now 29, Gearhart still believes he has the arm to make a comeback. He plans to attend an open tryout Saturday for the Atlantic League's York Revolution.
Gearhart knows this time around there are no guarantees.
"I'm not going there with any expectations," he said. "I know I'm not in game shape yet. I just want to see how my velocity is and continue working on getting back in shape. We'll see how it works out."
Gearhart admits putting on weight in recent years. He weighed 210 pounds when he first signed with the Dodgers but ballooned to 270. He has been working out in the basement of his uncle's Kistler home. "I played my best around 210 or 215," he said.
Gearhart was impressive as a rookie in the Gulf Coast League in 2004, finishing 3-0 with a sparkling 1.89 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings. The following season, Gearhart found himself back in the GCL. He went 1-2 with a 3.09 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings.
At a time when Gearhart should have been celebrating a move up to Ogden (Utah) of the Pioneer League at the start of his third season, spring training turned tragic.
"I was there for five days when he did it," Gearhart recalled of his father's suicide. He admitted spending that season and the next one "going through the motions." His ERA skyrocketed, while his innings diminished. In 2008, he had a decent spring but didn't get an assignment from the Dodgers. After completing extended spring training, he decided to step away from the game.
"I needed time to get my act together and get my head out of my butt," Gearhart said.
He played independent ball for Camden in 2009, appearing in 18 games and going 1-4 with a 6.83 ERA over the second half of the season. His career seemed back on track until a DUI sidelined him for the entire 2010 campaign.
Both Gearhart and team officials agreed it was best for him to sit out the season until his legal problem was resolved. The Riversharks needed pitching help in 2011 and he appeared in one game, closing out the first no-hitter in team history. That marked his last professional appearance.
Since then Gearhart has been playing in local men's leagues. Through all of the trials and tribulations, the thought of resuming his professional playing has haunted him.
"My grandfather played for the Reds in the 1950s," Gearhart said. "He played four years then he quit. He's been telling me stories about his playing days and made a comment that the older he gets, the more he's got regrets.
"I quit for the wrong reasons," he added. "I don't want to go through life and end up sitting in his shoes, saying something like that. I'm still single and young enough, so I might as well try it."
If he doesn't get an offer from York, Gearhart will continue to get back in shape and try again next spring.
"I'm looking at this as a rebuilding year," he explained. "For me to be in tip-top shape like I want to be, it's going to take months. I know I still have the arm strength. I want to let them see me this year then next spring I'll hit every tryout I can."
The last few years haven't been easy for Gearhart, who works at electronic game caller manufacturer FOXPRO. His comeback attempt is fueled by his passion for the game, which has meant so much to him over the years.
"My career was so promising my first year with the Dodgers," he said. "Things fell apart after that. If I'd have kept going who knows where I'd be now. I never gave myself a legitimate shot."
Recently, Gearhart was watching a Dodgers game on television and saw guys who he played with in the minors, including Scott Van Slyke, Chris Withrow and Clayton Kershaw.
"I want to do everything I can so I don't have regrets in life," he said. "I feel like if I put up good numbers, I will get picked up by somebody."