PORT CHARLOTTE — Dylan Delso retired from a pro baseball career he never had.
He walked away from a game that took him around the country as an amateur and eventually led to the desolate backfields at Charlotte Sports Park as an undrafted free agent with the Gulf Coast Rays.
It was baseball that gave Delso hope last year as he recovered from a near-fatal head injury.
"I was so determined to come back and play," he said.
This summer, Delso, 24, found himself one of five catchers on the GCL Rays.
"He was a long shot," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said.
Loren Elliott | Times
No, Delso was never a prospect, but he had a uniform.
Had his dreams, too, and what is Major League Baseball without players living their dreams?
Delso thought of himself as the next Mike Piazza, the 62nd-round pick who went on to a Hall of Fame career as a catcher. The draft is 40 rounds these days, which shows you what the game thinks of 62nd-round picks. They are today's undrafted free agents.
And undrafted players do reach the majors, such as former Ray Steve Geltz and current Oriole Darren O'Day.
"He always said he'd be the one they'd have to rip the jersey off of," said his mother, Darci.
But one day earlier this month, Delso took off his uniform and informed the organization he was through. He packed his dreams in his SUV and drove home to Broken Arrow, Okla., to start a new life.
"It was heartbreaking," Delso said, "but I knew it was something I had to do."
• • •
After his senior year at Oklahoma City University in 2016, Delso went undrafted. He signed with the Rays and was sent to their GCL team in Port Charlotte. He received a signing bonus big enough to cover two months rent on an offseason apartment in Oklahoma City.
He didn't care that the organization invested very little in him. He was investing in himself.
"I want to be able to look back and say I didn't leave anything on the table," Delso said over lunch at a Perkins on a June afternoon in Venice two weeks before the start of the GCL season. "I think I've got what it takes to reach the highest level."
Diners that day walked past the table and stared at the scars that crisscrossed the back of Delso's skull. Those sitting nearby stopped their conversations to eavesdrop as Delso told his story.
"I should be dead," he said. "No doubt."
Delso arrived in Port Charlotte on June 21, 2016. The season had already started. He did not play during the next four days. June 25 was a Saturday. The GCL does not have games on Sundays, so Delso, pitcher Austin Sweet and a few other teammates headed for Siesta Key that night.
Sweet noticed when Delso left The Beach Club bar. He followed him outside and down the street. He saw Delso climb a set of stairs at a nearby strip mall.
"Why don't you come down before you fall and hurt yourself?" Sweet remembered yelling.
Through an opening on the landing, Sweet saw his friend fall backward.
Loren Elliott | Times
Delso, who had been drinking, said alcohol was not an issue. He did not realize he was on the edge of the landing when he took a step back, he said.
Sweet found Delso unresponsive as blood pooled around his head. Acting on the lessons he learned from taking a CPR course in college, Sweet took off his shirt, applied pressure to Delso's head, kept his body stable and called 911.
Delso was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where a neurological unit is on staff around the clock.
"Austin Sweet saved Dylan's life," Darci said.
Sweet called Delso's parents in Broken Arrow. Darci and Dusty bolted for Sarasota, where they found their son in a medically induced coma. Doctors didn't know if he would wake up. They didn't know what shape he would be in if he did. Would he make a full recovery? Would he permanently need a wheelchair? Would he require round-the-clock care?
"I thought we were going to lose him," Dusty said.
Dr. Peter Mayer, a neurological surgeon, performed a decompressive craniectomy, where a postcard-sized piece of Delso's skull was temporarily removed to allow the brain to swell.
"That really worked for him," Mayer said.
• • •
Delso spent eight days in a coma. He remembers hearing those in his room talk. He could hear his mother every night as she squeezed his hand and told him she would be back in the morning. It broke his heart, he said, that he could not respond.
And Delso clearly remembers visiting a set of gates. They were made of gold, he said, and they were closed.
"I was at heaven's gate," Delso said. "I thought it was my time, and a voice, it was God's voice, said to me, 'It's not your time yet.' "
During one those nights his son spent in a coma, Dusty had a similar experience. He said he was visited by an angel who told him his son would be all right but the accident had to happen.
"It was absolutely necessary. That's what he said to me," Dusty said.
Jim Morrison, the manager of the GCL Rays, was one of the first to arrive at Sarasota Memorial. Dukes Knutson, the Rays' press box attendant at Tropicana Field and the team chaplain for the GCL Rays, was next. Prayer vigils began at the hospital and back home in Broken Arrow.
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Delso came out of the coma and made quick strides toward recovery. Because he was missing part of his scalp, Delso had to wear a helmet whenever he was out of bed.
"He hated wearing that," Dusty said.
Morrison brought him a Rays sticker for the helmet.
After a couple of weeks, Delso returned home. His grandfather drove him to his daily rehab. He played catch in the front yard with Dusty.
He was eventually well enough to work out with his old trainer in Oklahoma City. He spent two months living with Archie Bradley, a high school teammate who pitches for the Diamondbacks. He spent several weeks in California at a pre-spring training camp.
The ordeal led Delso back to his faith. He quit drinking. He was no longer the life of the party.
He liked the new Dylan. So did his parents and friends.
"I thought many times how looking back after (Jan. 1), thinking that was the worst year ever. It was horrible," Darci said. "But then I also thought it was the best year. I could have lost my son. I could have had a … son that was going to be dependent on us the rest of our lives. It could have been the worst year, but his miraculous healing made it the best year because we saw so many good things happened."
• • •
When the GCL season rolled around again last month, the Rays had a spot for Delso on the GCL team.
"We don't know how big the opportunity is going to be, but we felt compelled to give this young man an opportunity to play healthy," Lukevics said. "It would have been easy to release him. I didn't think it was the right thing to do. My conscious wouldn't allow me."
Mayer said it is not unusual for patients who suffered a traumatic brain injury to make a full recovery in a short time.
"But for an athlete of that caliber to make a complete recovery and go into professional baseball, I would say that's unusual, yes," Mayer said. "Most people have some mental deficits or something worse. It's on the high end of excellent recovery."
Loren Elliott | Times
On the year anniversary of the accident, Delso found himself alone at the foot of the staircase where his life changed.
"That set of stairs was the place where I became who I am today and who I'm trying to become," Delso said. "Without those stairs, obviously, I wouldn't know where I would be today, but I am truly thankful God used those stairs for me to open my eyes to him."
• • •
That's when Delso began to take stock of his life. He was in his mid-20s getting $100 a week to warm up pitchers in the bullpen. He figured he would get five, maybe 10 at-bats during the remaining eight weeks of the season. He met with Morrison and asked if that would be the case. Morrison said it would.
"I had to step back and make a decision as a human," Delso said, "and not as a baseball player."
He could stay with the team through the rest of the season, get a few at-bats and likely be released. Or he could go out on his terms.
"If I had any inkling at all that I could advance, I would have stayed, but I saw no opportunity at all for advancement," Delso said. "I looked around and saw the other free agent signee catchers and they're just catching bullpens, and that's just not me."
So during the second week of July, he retired, without ever playing a game.
Loren Elliott | Times
"It was a very hard decision," he said.
Delso's backup plan was always to be a firefighter. For that, he would have to complete an EMT course before joining the fire academy. The course begins Aug. 15. He enrolled last week.
During that lunch at Perkins, Delso called the past year the best of his life. He grew as a person and as a Christian. After ending his baseball career and arriving home, he said that has not changed.
"Absolutely," he said. "I will always be thankful for that year."
Delso came too far for it to be anything else.