It was going to be perfect — something for the storybooks.
Michael Limoncelli was going to bring a state title back to Horseheads High School, 20 years after his father coached the school to its last championship. His father Jeff, still captaining the ship, was going to watch his son capture something the family could cherish for a lifetime.
Having posted just two starts this season, allowing zero hits and striking out 20, he was dominating the opposition, well on his way to making that dream a reality.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
“I felt the elbow go... it just burst,” Michael Limoncelli said. “After that, you could feel it twirl up my arm.”
That ‘twirl’ was Limoncelli’s UCL tearing, wilting and retreating up into his elbow.
In the moment, he had no clue what was going on. He had never been hurt before. There was no initial pain, just a bit of shock and confusion. He wasn’t even aware he was hurt.
All of this coming just two weeks after pitching five innings in his season debut battling strep throat.
Jeff Limoncelli watched proudly as his son soldiered miserably through the season opener.
“He’d go out and do his thing and then come into the dugout and just crash and lay down,” Jeff Limoncelli said. “That’s just who he is though. He battles.”
But this arm injury wasn’t something Michael was going to be able to battle through.
After shutting himself down for a week, he tried throwing again. There was stiffness, and now pain in his arm.
Another week went by and he tried again. Same result.
At that point, he and his family decided it would be best he get an MRI to determine what was going on.
“It certainly gives you a different perspective on things,” Michael Limoncelli said. “All I wanted to do was bring a title back to my school with my team. That hurt more than my injury.”
With two months left in his senior campaign, his season and prep career was over. Horseheads HS would end up losing in the semifinals. The dream of bringing home a title with his father wasn’t to be.
“I’m not going to lie, it absolutely was disappointing we couldn’t achieve that together,” Jeff Limoncelli said. “I was pretty darn confident it was going to happen.”
It was a sobering few months in the Limoncelli household filled with silence and sleepless nights. There wasn’t a guide on how to handle a situation like this. Jeff said his son handled it with courage and grace.
“I was so proud to be his father,” Jeff Limoncelli said. “One second all the scouts are calling and the next it’s crickets. He was devastated. We cried together. I told him ‘this isn’t a disease’ and that he’d be okay.”
Committed to Coastal Carolina, Limoncelli set his sights on what would come next. Determined to put the injury behind him, his family decided to employ Dr. James Andrews to conduct the Tommy John surgery. Andrews is the most renowned UCL surgeon in the business. This gave the 19-year-old some peace of mind.
After meeting with Dr. Andrews, the elder Limoncelli said Michael had a renewed sense of enthusiasm. It was a sight for sore eyes after a brutal few months on the bench. But the dream of playing pro ball was still very much on hold, at least in the family’s eyes.
The Limoncelli family believed it was a done deal that Michael would end up at Coastal Carolina and continue his baseball career there.
“I’m sure pro teams liked that Dr. Andrews was going to do the surgery,” Michael Limoncelli said. “But honestly, I wasn’t really anticipating going pro at that point.”
Prior to the injury, Limoncelli was hearing he’d go anywhere between the 2nd and 4th round. Had that been the case, he’d likely have signed for a big bonus and gone pro. But after the injury, that narrative had obviously changed.
“I wasn’t anticipating being picked in the top ten rounds,” Michael Limoncelli said.
Falling out of the top ten rounds is significant in the amateur draft. Any monies paid to players drafted in rounds 11-40 above $125,000 are subject to the bonus pool. Limoncelli was going to need more than $125,000 to sway him away from his commitment to Coastal Carolina, so being drafted outside of the first ten rounds may have made signing him pretty difficult.
Quietly, the Mariners hadn’t wavered a bit on their interest in Limoncelli.
Area Scout Dave Pepe and Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter were calling the Limoncelli household multiple times each week. They were keeping his spirits up, giving encouragement that everything was going to be okay. But according to Jeff, nothing led the family to believe he was going to be picked.
“They were always calling, over and over,” Jeff Limoncelli said. “I understand the business, I do... but they truly care about my son. Not the baseball player. They care about the person.”
The Mariners had certainly fallen in good graces with the family, but there was still the hurdle of money if a deal were to ever come to fruition.
Limoncelli’s agent provided teams what the bonus figure would need to be for him to sign. He wanted 4th round money, specifically $500,000.
“As far as the money goes, it needed to be a life-changing figure,” Michael Limoncelli said. “It needed to be a number that made sense to pull me away from a college education.”
On June 2, A day before the draft and his scheduled surgery, Limoncelli received word from his agent that the Mariners were going to select him in the 6th round. He didn’t believe it.
Quite literally, he didn’t believe it.
“Eh, yeah, I didn’t put too much stock into it... I really didn’t take it too seriously.” Michael Limoncelli said.
His subsequent surgery complicated things a bit...
“When I actually found out I was picked, I was so hopped up on anesthesia I wasn’t really sure what was real,” Limoncelli laughed. “My dad congratulated me, but I was loopy.”
His dad remembers it a bit differently.
“It was such an amazing moment seeing that phone ring and seeing his name tick across the television,” Jeff Limoncelli said. “I get emotional even thinking about that moment spent with my son.”
Honoring his word, the $500,000 figure rang true. The Mariners splurged and signed the 19-year-old for $240,000 above the $260,000 slot bonus designated for the 186th pick.
Limoncelli couldn’t be more thrilled with how things turned out.
“This is a dream come true,” Michael Limoncelli said. “The Mariners are going to take such good care of me. They’re going to take their time with me and put me in the best place possible to get healthy, healed, and back to 100%. I get to wake up every day and realize what I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid. I’m just so grateful.”
Limoncelli officially relocated to Peoria, Arizona earlier this week where he will begin rehabbing immediately. Just one month removed from surgery, there’s not much he can do at this stage, but being around the team is already paying dividends.
“I already spoke with Sam (Carlson) and he reiterated it’s a long process,” Michael Limoncelli said. “We’re at two very different places in our rehabs. He just told me to be patient.”
At the end of the day, the New York native is content, appreciative, and eager to put his best foot forward during this recovery process.
“It was a blessing and a curse,” Michael Limoncelli said of his elbow. “The Mariners are letting me achieve my dreams of becoming a big leaguer. How can you be not thankful?”
Limoncelli hopes to begin throwing in early 2020. He could conceivably get a couple innings in Everett next summer if all goes well.