Baltimore Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad received a career-ending diagnosis, or so he thought two and a half years ago.
Two months after becoming the No. 2 pick in the 2020 MLB draft, the outfielder developed a case of Myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – and missed the entire 2021 season to receive treatment and heal.
Fast-forward to this year, at the Arizona Fall League, and Kjerstad is tearing the baseball apart for the Scottsdale Scorpions. His success continues after making his major league debut on June 10 – the two-year anniversary of his draft day – with a .357 batting average and the league’s sixth-highest OPS (1.008) this season. On Saturday, the slugger participated in the league’s Fall Stars Game and home run derby.
He plays the game with a sense of ease, but his journey back to the diamond required fierce resolve.
“It was unfortunate,” Kjerstad said. “It was obviously one of my lower points last year not being able to play because of myocarditis, but it was a part of my journey and fortunately my family was always there for me.”
Added Orioles teammate Reed Trimble: “He’s worked really hard to be where he’s at. He’s been through a lot of things in his life, but for him, it’s just a testament to what a job he’s done so far. He’s gonna be playing this game for a long time.”
Kjerstad was raised in Amarillo, Texas. His family was always an immense inspiration for him growing up – two older brothers played baseball, and his parents always pushed him to play as well. Kjerstad attended Randall High School in Amarillo, where the left-handed batter had an incredible high school baseball career. He boasted a .477 batting average with 32 RBI during his junior season and earned All-State First Team honors as a senior.
“All my brothers played baseball, so as a little kid I looked up to them and wanted to play baseball like they did,” Kjerstad said. “My parents did everything they could to help me be successful and push me in the right ways.”
That extra push led to Kjerstad’s selection in the 36th round of the 2017 MLB draft by the Seattle Mariners, but he opted to attend the University of Arkansas to play college ball first.
His time in Fayetteville was nothing short of spectacular. Kjerstad started all 69 games in the outfield as a freshman and was named SEC Freshman of the Year while leading the team to the 2018 College World Series final. A unanimous First-Team Preseason All-American ahead of his junior season, COVID-19 cut the 2020 season short. Kjerstad decided to enter the draft again – and the rest is history.
“I just wanted to get drafted,” Kjerstad said. “I knew there was a chance I could go that high in the draft, but honestly I didn’t care much about where I was gonna be selected.”
Many baseball experts expected the second overall pick to fly through the minor leagues, but Myocarditis brought his baseball career to an abrupt halt. Kjerstad’s recovery and return to baseball proved arduous but he persevered. Restored to 100% health, he suffered a second setback, this time due to a high-grade left hamstring strain in March.
Over the next two months, with the help of his family, Kjerstad stayed the course.
“I didn’t think there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Kjerstad said. “My family always made sure to remind me of that and how it’s just a matter of time until I get back. They’ve been with me through the good times and bad times.”
Debuting for the Orioles’ Low-A affiliate, the Delmarva Shorebirds, he didn’t waste time with a slash line of .463/.551/.650 in 98 plate appearances. Kjerstad needed only 22 games to get called up to High-A, and now he’s taking on the Fall League.
“He’s a super down-to-earth guy and really fun in the clubhouse,” Orioles teammate Easton Lucas said. “I didn’t get to meet him until I got to Arizona, and he’s treated me like everyone else.”
Kjerstad gets his long-awaited chance to prove he’s deserving of the second overall selection and the expectations that come along with it while making up for the lost time in the last few days of the AFL season.
“I just want to keep becoming a baseball player every day,” Kjerstad said. “It’s really competitive out here, and I just want to play as much baseball as I can right now.”