By Jim Sullivan
---- — Rowley Rams starting pitcher Mike Sloban has always been a tough competitor.
“Once you get on the baseball field, you kind of zone in, you don’t pay attention to the pain,” said Sloban. “But it was always there.”
A Pentucket alumnus, Sloban was just coming off his junior season last year as the Pitcher of the Year for the UMass Lowell River Hawks when he took a two-week break before taking the mound once again for the Rams. Sloban had served as a closer for the Intertown League squad the previous summer. There was, however, one problem last summer: Sloban had been suffering from what felt like a constant ear infection in his left ear for the six months prior.
Sloban went to Health Services at school to have it checked out, and the findings were inconclusive. The pain continued, and Sloban finally saw a specialist.
“Even he didn’t know what it was at first,” said Sloban. “He would go in there and try to take it out. And I told him to leave some of my brain in there because I had finals coming up. That’s when they diagnosed it as what it really was.”
Sloban was inflicted with a cholesteatoma, a type of cyst located in the middle ear and skull bone that fills with dead skin cells. In Sloban’s case, the dead skin had enveloped his eardrum.
“I was in pain the whole time,” said Sloban, 23. “But you are throwing so often at UMass Lowell that it doesn’t really have time to interfere with anything.”
The mechanical engineering major finished out his junior season and had surgery scheduled for mid-summer, taking a two-week break before summer ball. That’s when things started to get strange.
“I always have had kind of a hitch in my delivery,” said Sloban. “But all of a sudden, everything was out of whack. I was landing with my front foot before my upper half was ready to throw.”
In reality, Sloban looked like an injured scorpion on the mound. He went to a pitching coach and tried everything he could, but the problem would not resolve itself.
“He was the only leftover starting pitcher from our championship year,” said Rams coach Jeff Wood. “And we had a lot of high hopes going into last year. When he came up with that, it was certainly odd. It was certainly something I had not seen before. He just lost his timing, and I’ve really got to hand it to him. He’s a great competitor. He did everything he could do to try to help the team and get back on the mound.”
But Sloban never found his form and was shut down.
“It was obvious to all of us that if he continued down on that path, he was going to get injured,” said Wood. “It says everything that you need to know about Mike that he worked as hard as he did for his summer team. And even after he hung them up, he was here all the time.”
Sloban had surgery in late July to clear the cyst and place a titanium rod in his inner ear to bring his hearing back to normal. He then took a six-week recovery, coming back to play for the River Hawks in the fall. There were no issues at all, and Sloban received his degree in the spring.
“Maybe the second or third time I played catch, I noticed that everything was back for me,” said Sloban. “It was the craziest thing. I was so happy.”
But perhaps his biggest test was taking another two-week break before summer ball. This time around, there have been no problems and Sloban is 2-0 for the Rams (10-5-1 record).
“The pain that I was going through before was just a nagging, everyday pain,” said Sloban. “And the fact that it interfered with my baseball was just really frustrating. Now everything came out the best way it possibly could, and I can play baseball again. I can hear again, it’s pain free. I couldn’t ask for it to turn out any better way.”
“It’s not a coincidence that the fate of the Rams turned around the time that he showed up,” Wood said of Sloban. “That’s when we became a playoff team, and he’s been a great competitor. He looks great this summer, and we’re really glad to have him back. I can’t say enough about Mike.”