MERIDEN — Mike Gulino is back behind the plate, whistling snap-throws down to first base and darts down to second from his knees.
His right-handed swing looks good. Plenty of bat speed, plenty of muscle.
A presence at the plate, whether squatting behind it or standing along side it: That’s Mike Gulino, the catcher who starred at Maloney High School and then Pace University and is playing this summer with the Record-Journal Expos in the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League.
Which is nothing short of a miracle.
That’s exactly how Dr. Anthony Guanciale of Cincinnati put it to Mike’s dad, Ross Gulino, a year ago after performing surgery on the vertebrae in Mike’s neck that shattered in a collision at home plate during an independent Frontier League game in nearby Florence, Kentucky.
“When I got there,” Ross recalled this week, “the surgeon pulled me aside, showed X-rays and said, ‘I don’t know if you believe in God or not, but I’m just telling you this is nothing short of a miracle. Everything went great, but this could have easily gone the other way.’”
So often, with neck injuries, fractions of an inch measure the difference between tragic and miraculous. Mike’s X-rays, which his mom Lisa still carries in her phone, prove it.
They show the damage wrought by that collision at home plate. Mike’s C5 verterbrae had burst into pieces. Those pieces were perilously close to his spinal cord. Some even appear to touch it.
The miracle? Not one cut into Mike’s spinal cord.
Lisa slides to another X-ray. This one shows the artistry of Dr. Guanciale. The pieces of the C5 are gone and what looks like a small table — a plate and two screws — fuse the C4 and C6 veterbrae and bridge the gap where the C5 once was.
It’s called Anterior Cervical Disc Fusion. It’s why Mike Gulino, one year removed from near paralysis, is not merely walking, but playing baseball.
That surgery, and Mike’s own drive. Despite the neck brace he wore for 12 weeks, despite the lingering pain and weakness in his left arm and hand, despite the slow and often frustrating rehab, Mike Guilino was determined to get back behind the plate and, at age 23, keep his dream of playing Major League Baseball alive.
“It’s a blessing to still be able to play and run and everything,” Mike said after the Expos beat Rainbow Graphics in the season opener at Ceppa Field on Tuesday night. “I’m excited to be back out here.”A play at the plate
Mike Gulino is a sharp guy. He graduated from Pace two years ago with a degree in sports marketing.
He talks quickly and starts answering a question before you finish asking it, even if it’s about what happened that day in Florence, Kentucky.
“I hate to bring you back—”
“You’re good, you’re good.”
“— there, but I’m going to bring you back there.”
“When it happened, you heard a crack in your neck, felt it?”
“My body was in shock, I couldn’t feel it all.”
“You were mentally alert?”
“Yeah, I was awake, never passed out, never lost consciousness.”
“You didn’t panic?”
“I did a little bit. Not right away, but once I realized what was going on, then I started panicking.”
Lisa Gulino was there that day. She and her mother had flown out for a wrap-around series between Mike’s Florence Freedom and the rival Gateway Grizzlies. They got to see Mike play Saturday and Sunday and — bonus — he was in the lineup again for Monday’s finale, one of those weekday morning games minor league teams often schedule on getaway days.
Those games are marketed to youth groups and, sure enough, UC Health Stadium was packed with kids for “Day Care & Campers Day.”
Details are fixed in Lisa memory: the date (June 24), the inning (6th), the score (4-3 Florence).
Mike had just doubled off the wall and Lisa, adhering to a rewards system that dated back to her son’s earliest playing days, was thinking, “Another 15 bucks I owe him for that.”
And then the day turned on a dime.
A ball was fouled into the stands and struck one of the little fans. EMTs came over to attend to him.
On the field, Mike had advanced to third. Florence had runners at the corners. Then the runner at first got caught off base by Gateway’s left-handed pitcher, and while that rundown ensued, Mike broke for home and got caught in a pickle of his own.
So he wasn’t running all that fast.
From her vantage point near the Florence dugout, Lisa could see the catcher straddling the third base line. His legs were spread wide. Mike dove toward the opening. That’s when the catcher turned just slightly, closing the gap just enough for Mike’s head to hit the his guard.
In the aftermath, Mike lay face down on the field.
“I’m a nurse, so not I’m not really alarmist. I thought he got the wind knocked out of him,” Lisa said. “Then he’s not moving. I’m watching. And then I see him kick his legs up. I think, ‘OK, he’s moving his legs; OK, I see his hand.’”
The team trainer had rushed onto the field. Lisa kept her eyes peeled on Mike.
“He’s not moving.”
She stuck her head in the dugout. “Can I get on that field?”
Lisa threw the keys to the rental car to her mother and jumped out of the stands.
“I didn’t know when I was coming back. I got down on the ground with him.”
Mike’s left arm was twisted a bit behind him.
“What is going on?” Mike asked his mother. “I’m in so much pain.”
Hearing the crack in his neck, feeling the explosion of bone, Mike knew not to move.
“I really couldn’t move,” he said. “I was kind of paralyzed for that 30 seconds, or whatever it was. It felt like forever.”
As panic set in, Mike began to hyperventilate. Making matters worse, the field at UC Health Stadium is all turf. Mike started inhaling the artificial grass and rubber fill.
“I was coughing up a lot of that. It was a very uncomfortable situation, for sure.”
With so many buses in the parking lot for “Day Care & Campers Day,” an ambulance couldn’t get on the field. Mike was put in a neck collar, strapped to a backboard and taken off on a golf cart.
There is a hospital in Florence. The owner of Mike’s team directed the ambulance crew to go to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center instead.
Lisa hopped in the ambulance. “I’m coming with you. I’m not leaving you.”At the hospital
The UC Health Center in Cincinnati is about 20-30 minutes away across the Ohio River from the baseball field in Florence, Kentucky that bears its name.
When Mike got to the hospital he was wheeled into the trauma room and put in a halo to keep his head stable.
His feet were moving, his arms, too. His hands were in severe pain, especially the left one. He didn’t want anyone touching him.
Ross was back in Connecticut, beside himself, waiting for an update.
“I was at work, on a job, and my wife called me and told me what happened: He was on the field, he wasn’t moving. Then she hung up. It was probably only — I don’t know how long it was; it felt like hours before she called me back and said, ‘He’s in the ambulance, he moved.’
“I can’t even explain what was going through my head,” Ross said. “Thank God she was there, my mother-in-law was there. Scary times.”
The X-rays revealed the damage. The course of surgery laid out.
“Mike was real brave. ‘OK, let’s get it fixed, let’s get it fixed.’” Lisa said. “My thoughts were, ‘Let’s get it fixed; when can we have surgery?”
The initial thought was to keep Mike stabilized and do the surgery on Wednesday. A team doctor from the Freedom was friends with Dr. Guanciale. A call was made.
“This is my guy. We need to get him taken care of.”
The next morning, Tuesday, June 25, Mike was wheeled in at 9:30 a.m. for Anterior Cervical Disc Fusion. It was done in less than two hours, the shattered C5 removed, the C4 and C6 connected with the plate.
Mike spent the next two days in intensive care. He was in a regular room for another two. By the end of the week, he was discharged.
“In Cincinnati they took great care of me, and my trainer, Tim Murray, he knew exactly what to do,” said Mike. “Maybe I wouldn’t be able to walk if it wasn’t for them, so I really appreciate it. And the doctor who did my surgery did an awesome job.”
Mike returned to his host family for the weekend, was seen again at UC Health on Monday and cleared to return home. Mike couldn’t fly. By then, Ross had arrived to drive everyone home.Back in Meriden
The Gulinos arrived home on July 3. Lisa immediately got Mike started on hand therapy at Gaylord Hospital, twice a week for six weeks.
Then there was the work Mike was trying to do on his own. Even with the neck brace on, he’d get in the pool and do motion exercises. He’d go on walks with his friend Cam Fahey, who had just undergone back surgery and had to rehabilitate, too.
In September, on Mike’s birthday, the neck brace came off and advanced physical therapy commenced in the motion lab at the Bone & Joint Institute at Hartford Hospital. It continued until February.
After that, Mike worked out on his own in a gym he’d built at home. Weights, cardio, baseball skills, frustration: Mike tackled all of it.
“I just started working slow. I knew I had a long process, a long road ahead,” he said. “I just started and just kept chipping away at it and had to stay motivated. It was a long time working to get that strength back and it was very frustrating, but I was able to push through it.”
“The hardest part was that it was a slow process; I know he wanted to excel faster than he was,” Ross said. “That was the hardest part: Watching him get frustrated. But he stuck with it. He’s a stronger person than I ever was.
“I’m very proud of him,” Ross added. “He taught me a lot. Just never give up. I try to instill that in them, but he’s a competitor.”
And now Mike is back competing, playing with his younger brother Joe in the Greater Hartford Twilight League and hoping to possibly return to Florence for an abbreviated season later this summer. (A regional four-team circuit is set to begin July 31 and continue through August into September.)
Gulino is also coaching. He joined the staff at Albertus Magnus College before the coronavirus shut down the season in March. He’s also opened up a training center: Top Level Baseball, so named because it’s on the top floor of an old mill building on High Street.
If Mike can get back to Florence or join some other independent organization — affiliated teams aren’t playing this year; MLB has shuttered minor league baseball for 2020 — it will be his third straight year playing pro ball. Prior to playing in the Frontier League last year, Gulino spent part of 2018 in Texas with the Cleburne Railroaders in the American Association.
There’s no question, the dream endures for the catcher from Maloney.
“I want to keep playing. I’m going to give it all I’ve got and just give it one more chance,” Mike said. “I felt like that opportunity was almost stripped of me. I didn’t want to go out on anyone else’s terms. I want to go out on my own, and I think I still got more in the tank to get to affiliated baseball.
“That’s the goal. I want to play in the MLB, obviously, and I think just the right people have to see me play and I’ve got to be on that day. I know I can just get it done.”