COLUMBIA — Who is that guy?
Carmen Mlodzinski looks at the picture of himself on the pitcher's mound last year, close-cropped hair just below his ears, with the strong beginning of the beard he currently sports but even with himself a year older now, appearing so much older then. It’s one snap, him frozen in time, but he remembers all that went on before and after.
Who was that guy stomping and scowling on the mound? Who was that guy telling everybody to approach the game as a business and to cut out the foolishness?
It took a severe injury, a forgettable season and a summer of rediscovery before he could really come to terms with it.
Whoever that guy was, the supposed ace of a South Carolina baseball team that scuffled to get to a 28-28 record while he sat on the bench for all but three games with a fractured foot, it wasn’t Carmen Mlodzinski.
“I think I got a little too stiff on everybody, I was trying to be serious. I thought that was what it took, to try to be a big-league guy,” he said. “I was a self-involved guy, and that’s not the person I’ve been for 19, 20 years of my life.”
He wears a rueful smile. He had no smiles, rueful or otherwise, last year. He was pitching through pain, refusing to tell anybody how bad his foot was hurting because that’s what big leaguers do, they play through it.
Then in his third start, he delivered a pitch to a Clemson batter, landed and pop! There it went.
“I was just young and stupid is really what it comes down to,” he said. “It was me trying to be, ‘I’m the man, I’m invincible.’ Well, you’re not.”
There was an outside shot at him returning late last season, but there was no point as the Gamecocks stumbled to the worst SEC season they’ve ever had. Mlodzinski set his sights on rehabbing his foot and playing in the Cape Cod League, where he might regain his form.
Before he left, he regained his focus. He discarded the grown-up Mlodzinski but kept the maturity. He realized he could still pitch, lead and play the way he always had without being a ramrod-straight, Eagle-Scout team captain.
To talk to him now is always seeing a smile, and one can’t unsee the unruly blond locks spilling from the back of his cap and brushing his shoulders. The beard’s filled in, and he can let himself slouch a bit when talking about the coming season.
“I like the long hair. I’m a big classic rock guy, so … ” he said mischievously. “Team’s really just embraced me, especially going through something like that, the big mental change. I’m sure they were kind of like, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ for a little while there.”
“With him missing the great majority of last year, you didn’t know what would happen next,” coach Mark Kingston said. “Those things can go one of two ways — either it becomes a blessing in disguise or it’s the beginning of the end. For him, it’s a blessing in disguise.”
Mlodzinski's fastball was low to mid-90s all summer, nearly hitting 100 in the fall. He averaged four walks to every 40 strikeouts in the Cape and came back stronger and healthier. He did so well that he shot into the Top 10 of college prospects by Baseball America and D1Baseball, which caused him to throw before a relief map of radar guns every time he threw in fall practice.
“As long as you don’t pay attention to that stuff, it won’t get in your head,” Mlodzinski said. “There could be 10 million people or zero people watching you, it’s still a baseball game. You still have to get the batter out.”
He has no social media, hasn’t discussed dollars that could be waiting for him at the end of the season (the final pick of last year’s first round received $1.6 million to sign). All Mlodzinski focused on was getting back to himself, a goofball on and off the mound who can pitch a little bit, instead of a pitcher who likes to sometimes goof around.
“I really do think it was the attitude and the atmosphere, and that was something I definitely didn’t help,” he said, discussing his and the team's struggles last year. “For some reason, I changed in the fall and I had success in the fall. But it wasn’t going to work all season.
“I have a much better relationship this year. And this team is going to have a much better relationship.”
Mlodzinski rebuilt the best one with himself.