When Pat Oakes got called up to the varsity baseball squad at Holy Spirit High School four years ago, he figured his career was about to take off. Little did he know at the time that there would be a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, and some serious obstacles he’d have to overcome before graduating this spring.
His first two years were pretty good, he made it up to varsity late in his freshman year in baseball and was cutting his teeth on the junior varsity team in basketball.
“My four years at Spirit were great. I started out on JV my freshman year with Pat Mullin and he was a great young coach. I got called up to varsity late in the season and got a few at-bats, which was nice,” said Oakes, a 5-foot-8, 150-pound infielder. “My sophomore, junior and senior years I started on varsity. I started out as a left fielder as a sophomore. I never hit home runs, I was more of a singles and doubles kind of guy. That was a great season, my sophomore year under coach Downey, it was a great group of kids and we made it pretty far in the playoffs before we lost to Immaculata.”
Oakes figured after tasting success as a sophomore that the best was yet to come. But before his junior year even started he suffered a serious shoulder injury, then his senior baseball season was wiped out due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My junior year was kind of depressing because I just was a DH all year. In the first scrimmage, against ACIT, I was leading off and playing second base. I got a hit and when I got to first the pitcher tried to pick me off and when I dove back to the bag my (right) shoulder dislocated. It popped right back into place when I was on the ground, which was kind of weird, and I played the rest of the game. The next day we were at Timber Creek and when I threw the ball it felt like somebody had stabbed me in the shoulder. I never felt pain like that before. Coach (Jason) Downey came up to me and said, ‘hey, what was up with that throw? You’re throws are usually on a line.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, I think it was from the last game.’ But even in the game I hurt it, I felt OK, I turned a couple double plays, but the next day was when it really started to hurt,” Oakes, a Mays Landing resident, explained. “So after that game against Timber Creek I went and got an x-ray and then a follow-up consultation with the doctor for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he diagnosed me with a slat tear of my labrum. It was basically a superior labrum, anterior to posterior — like the front part of the labrum. My two options were to get surgery or just DH. I didn’t need the labrum to bat, but I couldn’t throw, so I was a DH the whole year. I didn’t get the surgery because I play basketball as well, so if I got the surgery it would have been a really long recovery.
“I went to rehab three days a week with Ryan Buccafurni at Integrity Physical Therapy to basically strengthen the muscles around the labrum,” he continued. “It feels great now, I’m back to playing. It was sad to know that the pandemic took away our senior season, but that Last Dance tournament was a lot of fun, finally playing second base as a Spartan and getting a few more at-bats in my career was awesome.”
Oakes recalls being a wide-eyed freshman and getting the call to join the varsity group, a highlight of any young athlete’s prep career.
“After a JV game, when I went 3-for-3, coach (Steve) Normane said, ‘hey, Pat, why don’t you come up to varsity for a few games.’ I was a little freshman and was probably about 130 pounds. I figured maybe I could hit a few line drives and help the team out,” he said. “Obviously I was a little nervous as a freshman getting called up to varsity in the middle of the season, and I didn’t expect to play very much, but the second game I was up there I got in for a few innings to play second base and got a few at-bats. My first varsity hit was against St. Augustine Prep and it’s always fun to play against them. It was great to have that feeling with my parents and friends watching.”
Oakes also made an impact in basketball, his secondary sport, working his way up through the junior varsity ranks to finally become a counted on bench player for coach Jamie Gillespie as a senior. But even then, he had to deal with a sprained ankle that derailed half his season. That never dampened his enthusiasm, though.
“I’m better at baseball, but basketball was fun, too. My junior year I played mostly JV and senior year I played under coach Jamie Gillespie, and I’ve known him my whole life, I’m good friends with his son, Gavin,” Oakes said. “We play together in baseball, too, so it’s funny how the people in two different sports intersect. Basketball was fun. I was coming off the bench to create a spark. We had a great group of kids with Christian Kalinowski, Joe Glenn, Jack Cella, all those guys.”
Even when the pandemic began, Oakes and his teammates never thought their senior baseball season would be wiped out. They just thought maybe it would be delayed a few weeks, which was good news to him because that would give him time for his ankle to fully heal.
“We were supposed to have a scrimmage against EHT when we got the word that the season was going to be canceled. I left my baseball bag in my car for a few weeks because I was so upset. I didn’t even want to touch my gear,” he said. “But it ended up being a unique year. Hopefully baseball will be back next year for the seniors, but I think everyone will remember this quarantine, Last Dance edition of high school baseball.”
Despite all the setbacks, Oakes has always had a positive attitude, and will take his love for not only the game, but people and live in general, with him to St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he plans to study accounting.
“I’m just an active kid. I rarely watch any TV. My parents and I all live, sleep and breath baseball and basketball. Any room in the house, if you walk in, there’s probably a baseball or basketball laying around. In baseball and basketball the coaching was great, and down here in South Jersey the competition — especially in baseball — was unbelievable. I faced Dan Nunan a couple times, Chase Petty is getting up there (in notoriety), Jayson Hoopes, Jake McKenna. I grew up with those guys and they are all a great group of kids,” Oakes said. “I’ve learned things on the court and on the field that I can not only use at the next level, but I can use in life. As my dad always told me, always be persistent. I would never give up or hang my head. You just have to get to the next play, or the next at-bat. Baseball and basketball are both short-term memory sports. If you miss a foul shot or make an error, you have to make up for it the next play or the next time you get the ball. The main thing is always give your best. Walking off the field my junior year, I didn’t know this pandemic would happen. I thought I would have a full senior season. So, every time you step on the court or field, play every game like it’s your last and give it all you have. In the yearbook, I was asked to give a motivational quote to the freshman and I said, ‘always give your maximum effort on the field or on the court, or in whatever sport you play.'”
Oakes said he believes the key to success — whether it be high school sports, academics or when he eventually enters the workforce, is communication.
“Communication is a big key in my opinion,” he said. “In baseball and basketball, communication is the key. In basketball I was always a guard and the first one back on defense so I’d have to communicate to the other players who to cover, and in baseball I was usually a shortstop or second baseman, so you had to communicate with the outfielders. That directly correlates with life and getting a job, you always want to communicate with your boss. Communication is the key to everything. Miscommunication can cause mistakes and anxiety but when everybody is on the same page you can have a well-rounded, stable environment.”
While Oakes’ high school career wasn’t storybook in the traditional sense, it did have a storybook ending. Holy Spirit entered the “Last Dance World Series”, a 222-team statewide baseball tournament organized by several coaches in north Jersey. The tournament was held in July and aimed to give seniors one last chance to compete for their respective schools. Spirit won the pool play portion of the tournament at Ocean City, beating out five other teams, but then lost in the single elimination round to Williamstown. Before the Spartans bowed out with a 7-3 loss, however, Oakes got one last moment he’ll remember for the rest of his life. In what would be his final at-bat of his high school career, he roped a double into the gap in right-center field. When he reached second base he gave a quick tip of the cap to his teammates and coaches on the bench, the guys who had supported him through everything the past four years.
“Ever since I was younger, I had a game in third or fourth grade when my mom pulled out the video camera and I went 0-for-3 and struck out and I told her not to video me anymore. But for some reason, that last at-bat of my high school career, she took out her phone and took video and I’m glad she was there to witness that,” Oakes said. “It was that feeling of stepping up to the plate one last time. I was expecting a fastball on the outside part of the plate, and I took the barrel through the zone and hit it pretty far. For a second I thought it had a chance to get out, but I’ll take the double. That was fun.”