Every time Springfield Cardinals catcher Michael Ohlman gets in a vehicle, the first thing he does is grab to his left, turn to his right and click his seatbelt in place.
Thanks to more states instituting seatbelt laws, millions of people across the country perform the same routine without a thought. Yet each time Ohlman buckles up, he does so wishing friends Brett Wagner and Josh Rogers would have taken the few seconds to do the same.
Ohlman’s Lakewood Ranch High School (Fla.) buddies were killed in a car crash on Christmas 2011 when they were struck by an elderly driver who failed to yield at a stop sign. Neither teenager was wearing a seatbelt.
As if to emphasize it further, barely three months and 20 miles from where his friends’ fatal crash occurred, Ohlman’s seatbelt likely saved his life.
Ohlman had just buckled up as he left the Orioles’ spring training facility in Bradenton, Fla., when his truck was sideswiped by another car, causing Ohlman’s vehicle to flip over on its roof. Ohlman didn’t lose consciousness and was able to crawl out under his own power. However, he injured his right shoulder in the crash and was placed on the disabled list.
“It was a tough time for me trying to deal with everything that was happening,” said Ohlman, who was an 11th round pick by Baltimore in 2009.
“I still think about the guys every day and how lucky I was to survive,” he said. “After my accident, the police back in Missouri asked if I would talk about seatbelt safety to help save other people’s lives. Now, I do it every opportunity I get.”
As if the accidents weren’t enough to set him back, Ohlman made some decisions while sidelined that resulted in a 50-game suspension after testing positive twice for “drugs of abuse.”
“It was an awful decision that I made and I paid the price for,” Ohlman said. “But I didn’t let that mistake hold me back, and I’m not ashamed to talk about it because people make mistakes. It’s what you learn from them and then do afterwards that counts.”
Ohlman struggled to get his career on track. He took longer to blossom than the Baltimore Orioles were willing to wait for.
Part of Ohlman’s adjustment period had to do with signing to play professionally as a 6-1 teenager who continued to grow into his current 6-5 frame. If Ohlman were a pitcher, his stature would be a huge benefit. But ever since he started catching at 9, crouching behind the plate has been Ohlman’s primary position.
“It’s a little harder for tall catchers,” Ohlman admitted. “You really have to be flexible, stay low with your target and consciously make shorter strides and compact throws.”
Not to mention being low enough to block balls in the dirt designed to get antsy batters to swing.
With Matt Wieters behind the plate and tiring of waiting for their costly investment to pay off, the Orioles traded Ohlman this offseason to the St. Louis Cardinals for cash considerations.
“At first I was a bit hurt,” he said. “But then I realized that I needed a fresh start. It’s been really good for me.”
In fact, Ohlman finally appears to be within reach of the major leagues. After batting just .236 last season with the Double-A Bowie Baysox in the Eastern League, Ohlman is now a Texas League All-Star with his new team. He’s hitting .306 with nine doubles, six home runs, 38 RBI and 27 runs scored in 49 games. An 0-for-4 effort Wednesday snapped his consecutive hit streak at a franchise-high tying 18 games.
“I didn’t even know anything about it until a few days before when somebody handed me a newspaper article about the hit streak,” Ohlman said. “It would have been nice to own the record, but it’s really not that important.”
As Ohlman has learned the hard way, playing baseball and tying records can be fun. But the game is nowhere the life or death scenario that keeps him mindful of buckling up each time he drives.