Mitchell Golden learned at an early age to be thankful for the game of baseball.
In fact, his father, Peter Golden, taught him to be grateful for every inning he plays, because his playing days won’t last forever.
When Mitchell Golden played for the Keene Swamp Bats in the summer of 2018, that lesson translated into him becoming the iron horse of the team. He played a team-leading 351.2 innings in the field across three different infield positions — 30 games at shortstop, 11 at second base and nine at third. His defensive skills, combined with a strong hitting line of .324/.428/.439, earned him the NECBL’s 10th Player Award.
This summer the Statesboro, Ga., native returned to Keene for a second season, but things have played out very differently. Hampered by injuries, Golden has gone from an iron horse throughout the infield to a part-time player, struggling to return to form as he plays most of his games as a designated hitter.
But as he fights to get back to 100 percent, the core message from his father is still his guiding light. Whether he’s leading the team in innings played, or just getting playing time, he’s grateful for every chance he gets.
“It’s been a little different because I’m off and on every day, but I just look at the positives and say that I’m getting to play baseball again after being out for 10 months,” Golden said.
Golden’s struggles began when he returned to Georgia Southern University for his junior year in August 2018. He tore his right labrum almost immediately, and missed the entire season after having surgery.
Golden’s blue-collar style of play actually backfired on him in this instance, as he initially continued playing after first feeling pain in his throwing shoulder.
“Something didn’t feel right, but I didn’t think it was anything serious,” Golden said. “I kept playing with it in our practices, and it eventually got to the point where I couldn’t make a throw from second base to first base without having to grab my arm.
“One day in a scrimmage game, I swung a bat, and [my labrum] basically just ripped on me, and that’s when I had to tell my parents that we need to go see a doctor.”
When the summer season rolled around, Golden was healthy enough to once again make the trip north and join the Bats. But after he started his first three games in the infield, it became clear to Keene manager Gary Calhoun that his arm strength still wasn’t quite what it used to be.
“He’s just now getting to where he can throw,” said Calhoun, who has years of experience with rehabbing players from his time as a minor league coach in the Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees organizations.
“You almost have to re-learn your arm action when you have those surgeries.”
So, Golden made his next five starts as a designated hitter — and one appearance as a pinch-hitter — while he continued to work his way back into baseball shape.
Even at the plate, however, struggles followed him. Through his first 12 appearances, the 5-foot-10 switch-hitter is batting a meager .158 (6-for-38), as compared to .262 at the same point last summer.
However, in a fitting twist, patience has proven to be one of his biggest assets this season. He leads the team in walks with 10, and is tied for 12th in on-base percentage at .333.
Things seemed to be going in the right direction, as Golden made his first infield start at second base on June 27 against the Mystic Schooners, and started there again the next day against the Valley Blue Sox.
But misfortune struck again in the form of another injury.
As the eighth inning was about to start in that second game, a pre-inning throw to second from catcher Ryan Hogan took a bad hop and caught Golden in the face. He suffered a broken nose, left the game, and missed another three games as a result.
But even in the face of another setback, Golden said he won’t get down himself, keeping in perspective that he’s suffered a worse injury than this and has been out for much longer.
“You can’t get down, especially in my situation, being out for so long, I can’t get down about a little injury,” Golden said. “Just gotta go home, take care of it and do everything I can to get back onto the field and help this team win.”
After practicing with a face mask this week, Golden played in his first game since the injury on Independence Day Thursday, returning to second base and going 0-for-4 in a 4-3 win at Valley.
While Golden’s game on the field has suffered one setback after another, what hasn’t taken a step back is the way his character and the Keene community have meshed so perfectly.
Golden — who won last year’s NECBL Sportsman of the Year Award as well — continues to be active in the Swamp Bats’ community outreach programs this summer, such as going to area elementary schools and reading to local kids, and teaching kids in the yearly Swamp Bats summer camp.
“I think the way that I’ve been able to interact with people in the community, and the way that the community’s given back to me and the team has been tremendous,” Golden said. “That was one of the things I thought was so different about our team from the other teams in the NECBL, was how much the community gets involved, and I figured it would be best to get involved in the community as well and show how much we appreciate them and all that they do for us.”
When he’s not engaged in team activities, Golden said he likes to fish — exuding the same patience he has at the plate out on the water — and enjoys walking down Main Street, going to local restaurants and chatting up any residents he meets.
The community, in kind, seems to have responded with continued support for the returning player, despite the dip in his on-field production.
“I think they’ve all realized and understood my injury, and so when I’ve talked to them or they’ve talked to me, they’ve treated me the same exact way, like the same player I was before my injury,” Golden said. “It means a lot to see the community and the fans still treat you right and support you in everything you do, no matter how you’re playing, especially with what happened to me. It means the world to me.”
The Bats have three of their best players typically manning Golden’s former positions in the infield, with Ball (.338/.378/.390, four doubles, 12 RBI, team-leading nine steals going into Friday) at shortstop, Will Wagner (.333/.406/.483, four doubles, 14 runs scored) at third base and David Bedgood — the team leader on-base plus slugging (1.028), home runs (6), RBI (19) and the league leader in runs scored (22) — at second.
But Bedgood has enough versatility to play in the outfield, and Calhoun said that if Golden can work his way back to 100 percent, then there will definitely be a spot in the lineup for him. With just about a month left in the season, however, Calhoun said he’s not sure how much Golden can recover in that time.
“If he plays like he did last year, of course, he’ll earn what he did last year,” Calhoun said. “I just don’t think, I mean we’ve got about a month left, and that’s a lot [to recover from], in my opinion, just seeing people come back from injuries like this, and that’s with an elite group of trainers.”
But Golden has never been one to back down from a challenge.
He said he’s still going to keep fighting to return to peak form, and is aiming to not just return to the field, but to move back to the left side of the infield by summer’s end.
And when he returns to Georgia Southern for his redshirt junior season (his torn labrum qualified him for a medical redshirt), he said his goal is to help his team — which has reached the Sun Belt Conference Championship game in three of the last four years but lost every time — to finally win that elusive title.
In the short term, with the words of his father still fresh, he plans a one-day-at-a-time approach.
“I’ve just started to realize that I just need to have as much fun as I can out there and not look at the big picture so early; take things in little steps,” Golden said. “Just going out there, having fun and remembering that I get to play baseball, and not many people can say they can do that.”