* INF Ryan Pidhaichuk (Richmond, BC), coming off surgery to repair both torn cartilage and a broken bone in his wrist, has only started three games for the Kansas Jayhawks, but the legend of his toughness continues to grow after he cut off his cast to go in as a defensive replacement at the NCAA regional last spring.
By Josh Carson
Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
When someone mentions Canadians, the first thing that comes to mind is a big brute hockey player missing a few teeth guzzling bottles of maple syrup.
Only part of that statement is true when talking about University of Kansas junior infielder Ryan Pidhaichuk. Hailing from British Columbia, Pidhaichuk is definitely a physical specimen; a 6-foot-1, 215-pound brick wall, but he prefers baseball cleats to skates, he has all of his teeth and he doesn’t chug maple syrup, at least not publicly.
Pidhaichuk is in his second season in the Crimson and Blue and has become known as one of the toughest guys, if not the toughest, on the team. Stories of his superhuman durability will live on for years and will become tales of folklore, the second coming of Paul Bunyan.
“He is the toughest guy in our program,” head coach Ritch Price said of Pidhaichuk. “He literally wears pitches like he is playing hockey and he is getting hit with a puck. If you throw it inside, he’s going to let it hit him. The guy is incredibly tough. He takes pride in being Canadian and being tough.”
Pidhaichuk credits his toughness to his father, an enforcer on the ice who was invited to training camp by the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings. An enforcer in hockey has one job. Fight. They key on the star players of the opposite team by fighting or aggressively checking the enemy. Being an enforcer requires toughness, a trait Pidhaichuk’s father instilled in him at a young age.
“I really do pride myself on being tough,” Pidhaichuk said. “Growing up, my dad was an enforcer for the LA Kings and he was always tough, that’s how I grew up, that’s who I am and I love that. I take pride in being tough.”
The legend of his toughness began last season. In 2014, Pidhaichuk was hit by nine pitches in 99 plate appearances, which equates to nearly one hit-by-pitch every 10 times he stepped in the batter’s box, but that’s not it. Two of those nine pitches he was hit by came on May 11 against West Virginia … in the same inning.
Pidhaichuk led off the sixth inning for the Jayhawks and got plunked by West Virginia’s John Means and later came around to score. KU batted around the order and Pidhaichuk returned to the batter’s box, only to get beaned by a different Mountaineer pitcher.
“I didn’t get too many at bats last year and I got hit a lot,” Pidhaichuk said. “Everyone knew that was not what I was going for. It’s not my goal, but apparently I have a magnet on me for getting hit.”
The legend continued to grow just weeks later, when the Jayhawks made the postseason and were headed to the Louisville Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Scheduled to face Kentucky on the Friday night, the team was scrimmaging on Tuesday when Pidhaichuk stepped to the plate for an at bat.
“I fouled a ball off and felt my wrist pop,” Pidhaichuk recalled. “I broke a bone in my hand and tore cartilage in my wrist, which is worse than breaking it.”
That injury would effectively shut a normal person down, but this superhuman wasn’t going to let it ruin his first trip to the NCAA tournament.
“Last season his main role was to come off the bench when we had the lead late in the game because he is such a good defensive player,” Price said. “We had the lead late in the game on Friday against Kentucky in the Louisville Regional, a situation I would normally put him in the game. He cut the cast off so he could play defense, that’s how tough that guy is. He went out and played in the seventh, eighth and ninth.”
Cutting the cast off wasn’t Price’s idea or anyone else’s. Pidhaichuk was the one who made the decision.
“I cut the cast off so I could go in and help the team out in any way possible,” Pidhaichuk said. “As long as I could play through the pain it was something I was going to do.”
He played solid defense in the late innings and came to bat with two outs in the ninth and a 10-6 lead.
“The doctor’s orders were that he was not allowed to swing the bat because he could severely hurt himself,” Price said. “We had him in a brace; it protected him enough to where he could play defence, but if he swung the bat he could further injure his wrist. He got an at bat and nobody in the stadium knew he wasn’t supposed to swing except him, me and a few other guys on the staff. He worked a full count and almost drew a walk, but the guy threw strike three.”
Knowing he couldn’t swing the bat, Pidhaichuk wanted to make sure he did all he could to help the team.
“I was in the box and I didn’t want to just stand there and let the guy know I wasn’t going to swing,” Pidhaichuk said. “I was taking the biggest leg kicks to make it look like I was going to try to hit it as hard as I could, but I never did swing.”
He had surgery on his wrist after the season concluded to repair the torn cartilage and broken bone. The surgery was a serious procedure and required a six-month recovery period. Pidhaichuk was supposed to play summer ball in New England but had to miss all of that season and all of fall ball due to the surgery.
“Obviously, missing all of that time put him way behind,” Price said. “He is just now starting to swing the bat like he did before the injury. As soon as he gets healthy, his playing time will increase through the course of the spring.”
Pidhaichuk hasn’t wasted time adding to his fable this season. Appearing in just nine of the first 20 games, he has already displayed another tough-guy moment.
Inserted as a defensive replacement at third base against Chicago State, just the fifth time he had played the position at KU, a hard grounder was hit toward him on the roughed-up infield at the North Charlotte Sports Park. The ball took a bad bounce at the last second and hopped up and drilled him in the neck. Before anyone could blink, he popped up and rubbed it off. Price and certified athletic trainer Ken Wainwright started out of the first base dugout toward him, but before they could make it to the pitcher’s mound, Pidhaichuk waved them off.
“Most guys on the team would have been laying in the dirt for a while,” Wainwright said. “The fact that he got right back up and was ready to go shows his toughness.”
Pidhaichuk’s toughness is not just physical, but mental as well.
The college season can be a grind, especially for someone who isn’t playing as much as they would like or hope for.
“Right now, he’s playing behind Blair Beck, who has been one of our best hitters so far this season,” Price said. “Ryan understands, from a maturity standpoint, that he’s playing behind a guy who is swinging the bat better than any guy in our program and he’s going to have to bide his time. I expect him to be a starter for us next year. He is as good of a defensive player, if not the best defensive first baseman, I’ve had since I’ve been here. As soon as he gets fully healthy, his playing time will increase this spring.”
Though it can be frustrating for Pidhaichuk to not see the field as much as he hopes, he knows his role and wants what is best for the team.
“You have to be mentally tough to be able to sit through this whole time and not be getting the playing time you think you deserve,” Pidhaichuk said. “It is more of a mental thing. I believe I am tough and it really does help me to get through that type of thing. Even when I am struggling with baseball, when I am starting every day and struggling, that mental toughness really comes in handy.”
His mental and physical toughness is something that can wear on other people, too. Pidhaichuk knows toughness is something that is needed to get through the grueling Big 12 Conference schedule and with such a young team and a slower-than-hoped-for start to the season; he hopes the team can learn lessons of durability by watching him.
“I believe toughness has to come from within,” Pidhaichuk said. “I try to lead by example: show what I can do out on the field, but also show that it is more than just baseball, you need to be mentally and physically tough in order to excel.”
Pidhaichuk plans to keep working hard and do whatever he can to help the team and is sure to add to his legendary tale along the way.