The South Atlantic League All-Stars will take the field on Tuesday night at NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro, NC.
Columbus Catfish outfielder Emeel Salem, however, will not be among them.
Although he was selected to represent the Catfish— along with pitcher Alex Cobb and fellow outfielder Maiko Loyola—Salem will be 600 miles away at the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training complex, rehabilitating a season-ending elbow injury.
Salem began his tenure in the South Atlantic League with a bang, continuing the success he began at the University of Alabama and continued last season with the Hudson Valley Renegades. He’d taken off running from Opening Day until May 14, when, ironically, an arm injury ended the outfield prospect's season.
Salem led the minors in stolen bases with 25 when the Catfish squared off against the visiting Hickory Crawdads that fateful night. He singled in his first at-bat and then—naturally—took off to steal second. Unfortunately, though, things took an unnatural turn when he slid into the bag.
“I did the same thing I’d done a million times in my life,” Salem recalled of his head-first slide. “My hand got caught in the ground. When it got stuck all of my weight came down on my hands and it was too much for the bone in my elbow to take.”
Although Salem knew immediately that something was wrong, he did not feel any sharp pain initially.
“When I did it, there was no pain but I heard a sound I knew I shouldn’t have heard. I thought it was a bad dislocation. I tried to shake it into place but I knew it wasn’t just a bruise,” he said.
After the game, he met with a doctor from the renowned Hughston Orthopedic Hospital, hoping for the best. He received an X-Ray on his injured elbow and was placed in a cast. The following day, a second doctor confirmed the diagnosis and suggested immediate surgery, as Salem broke off the olecranon in the back of his elbow. He then immediately made the trip to his hometown of Birmingham, where celebrated orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews—seriously, do baseball players go to anyone else to resolve medical issues?—performed the necessary season-ending surgery on Tuesday, May 20.
Not only did Salem benefit from Andrews’ expertise, he made a personal connection with the famed sports surgeon as well.
“Dr. Andrews lives in my home town of Mountain Brook, outside Birmingham. I know his daughters and family.”
After an initial recuperation period at in his hometown, Salem’s temporary home is now the Naimoli Complex in St. Petersburg. Regardless of what happened, he remains positive and upbeat, wishing to focus on the positive progress he’s made.
“Right now I’m trying to get back the full range of motion. Elbows get really stiff and I couldn’t extend or flex it all the way. But it’s definitely improving. Now I can exercise my legs and I started running yesterday (June 12).”
Salem relishes the best news of all—the elbow can be completely rehabilitated. “It should be 100% by spring training. They told me six months after it happened it should be fine. It could have been a lot worse.”
Salem, who was leading the Catfish in hitting before he went down with injury, finished his abbreviated second season in pro ball with a line of .301/.357/.366 in 153 at-bats. A month later, he’s still atop the Columbus leaderboard. His 25 stolen bases—which came in 30 attempts, for a success rate of 83%—are still one more than his teammate Loyola’s total of 24.
Columbus has struggled since losing one of its most effective offensive players, losing 15 of 18 after May 14, including a 12 in a row at one point. Since then the team is 6-5. Still, though, this season has been rather disappointing for the Catfish, who had an excellent starting rotation—led by top pitching prospect Jeremy Hellickson and Heath Rollins—and won the Sally league championship in 2007.
Losing Salem to injury hasn't helped matters. Catfish manager Matt Quatraro lost a spark when he was injured, one which has been difficult, if not impossible, to replace. “He’s a true catalyst,” said Quatraro. “He has good balance and good on-base percentage. He works the count and swings the bat aggressively. He’s also aggressive on the bases.”
Salem is also one of those players who impacts the opposition’s entire starting lineup, his manager says.
“He has the ability to change the entire dynamics of the game. The pitcher’s thinking he has to throw strikes. The infielders are in. The catcher knows he’s going to run. The manager has to think about what he’s going to do," Quatraro said.
Salem’s brief tenure with the Catfish followed a solid first year with Hudson Valley of the New York-Penn League. Salem swiped 28 bases in 58 games played, finishing the year with a solid line of .311/.384/.436 while collecting 11 doubles, seven triples, one home run and 23 RBIs. Hudson Valley, of course, is a long way from his native Alabama, but the speedster, who was born and raised in the south, enjoyed spending the summer in New York.
“The fans were surprisingly great. Coming from the SEC (Southeastern Conference), I didn’t know what to expect. But we packed them in every night.”
Salem received a degree in Marketing and Spanish from the University of Alabama, graduating this offseason. In his post-baseball future, though, he admits to having no idea how he will incorporate these two diverse areas into his future plans. “Baseball has always been my focus. I know I can’t control the future in sports, but I’m a talker, so I think marketing is something I’d fit into well.”
Salem decided to work on his Spanish after spending a summer playing baseball in Nicaragua. He doesn’t consider himself to be fluent, however. “I can get by if needed. I can communicate with the Spanish-speaking players. One thing I’ve realized is how much courage it takes for them to play here not knowing the language.”
Salem earned a number of honors at his alma mater, for his accomplishments in the class room as much as his success on the diamond. In fact, he was awarded the highest award the university offers to its undergraduate students, earning the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in 2007. In addition, he was also awarded the H. Boyd McWhorter Southeastern Conference Male Scholar-Athlete Award, was twice named the SEC Baseball Scholar-Athlete of the Year and was an eight-time member of the President’s List and Dean’s List during his time as a student-athlete for the Crimson Tide.
Salem’s achievements on the baseball field are no surprise, as he a comes from an athletic lineage. His father, Emeel Sr., was drafted in the 10th round by the Chicago Cubs but instead opted to enroll at North Alabama.. His mother, Jenny, was an excellent swimmer and his sister, Elizabeth, is currently a member of the US National handball team.
Salem and his dad came through Columbus recently en route to his rehab assignment and the younger Salem was briefly reunited with his teammates. “It was bittersweet as I’ve never been injured. It was tough to deal with at first and I really wished I could play.”
After a brief time in the Catfish dugout, Salem was already looking forward to next spring training and playing again next season. Should Salem fans anticipate any changes in his aggressive style?
“You can expect me to take off for second and slide head first. You can’t play sports and be timid. I’ll be just as reckless as before. When you try to avoid it, that’s when you really get hurt.”
To find out more information on Salem, visit his personal website, www.emeelsalembaseball.com