Even in the darkest of moments, and Sag Harbor’s Nick Kruel has had many of them, his mom was there to remind him to never give up.
The 21-year-old pitcher has gone through more than his fair share of hardships. When he was 7, doctors found a cancerous mass that his mother, Sandi Kruel, said required the surgical removal of his adrenal gland and part of his kidney.
There also was a soccer injury during his junior year at Pierson High School, as a 12-inch rod and nine screws were required to repair his broken right ankle, Sandi said.
That was nothing compared to his third major medical scare, one that required heart surgery.
“I remember the doctor came in and the first thing he told me was, ‘You’re never going to play baseball again and you won’t be able to run around with your friends, play sports,’ ” Kruel said. “I absolutely lost it, because in my mind, the doctor told me there’s nothing I can do. It’s over. I remember they even had to sedate me to calm me down because I was losing it.”
But then Kruel, a 19-year-old would-be pitcher at the University of Tampa, heard a soothing voice. “My mom did tell me while I was crying,” Kruel said, “she promised me I would play again while the doctors were telling me there’s no chance.”
Turned out Mom knew best. Kruel returned to Tampa two months after his nine-hour heart valve replacement surgery. He was a medical redshirt at Tampa the following spring but returned to pitch for the Sag Harbor Whalers in the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League last summer. He’s made the All-Star team the past two years with his parents, Sandi and Kevin, regularly attending his starts.
“He’s the kid who you can’t say no to,” said Sandi Kruel, who also has been the general manager of the Whalers since their creation 10 years ago. “It just won’t keep him down. He’ll do whatever it takes to get back on the field.”
But Nick wasn’t out of the medical woods. While playing for Tampa this season, he said, he had a second, unrelated heart issue and underwent surgery for that in May. He said if that had gone undiagnosed, it “could have put me in the ground.”
Said Kruel, “I like to consider myself a walking medical case.”
Sag Harbor and Tampa teammate Dominiq Sicardo, a catcher, said he admires what Kruel has overcome in his life.
“For having as many heart surgeries as he’s had and he’s still playing,” Sicardo said, “it’s pretty amazing. It’s incredible.”
Kruel, who didn’t start pitching until his sophomore year of high school, experimented with a knuckleball when throwing with his friends. But after utilizing that pitch in a summer league game and throwing a shutout, the first baseman quickly changed his primary position. Kruel threw a shutout in the Long Island championship game as a senior and now has major league scouts at his summer league games.
Athletics have always been a major part of his life, and Kruel credits this for helping him fight back from everything he’s had to deal with.
“As an athlete, you’re going to enter hard times,” he said. “Like when I’m pitching, if I have runners on, I could easily just fold and say, ‘Whatever. It’s over.’ Or I could say ‘no,’ bear down, start getting the outs, and that’s kind of my mindset. I’m not going to let someone tell me I can’t play.”
Kruel, set to return to Tampa with two years left of eligibility, is majoring in international business and entrepreneurship and says he wants to be his own boss. He continues to work on the baseball diamond, with dreams of his knuckleball taking him to a potential major league career.
After all his surgeries, life scares and everything else he’s been through, Kruel has learned to enjoy each passing day.
“I honestly think I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet,” he said, “and I wouldn’t ask for a different story than being able to be the guy who overcomes all these challenges and sets a good example for other kids going through the same thing.”