Sitting on a wooden bench at the end of the right field foul line, Sam Boone looks out at his Bend Elks teammates warming up for a game against the Yakima Valley Pippins. His deep laugh — in a voice somewhere between actor Brad Garrett and Star Wars’ Jabba the Hutt — reverberates as he fondly tells the story of his worst memory with the Elks.
“It was Game 1 of the 2015 championship (series). We were going to Kelowna, which is a 10-hour drive normally,” Boone says. “It turned into a 15-hour bus ride because of wildfires, and so we had to go all these alternate routes — and a dust storm happened too.
“We ended up winning the game, though, so that was good.”
Boone’s baseball career has had its share of detours as well. After posting a 9-2 record with an impressive 0.63 ERA in his senior year at Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington, the 6-foot-8 right-hander signed a letter of intent with Washington State. He spent just one season with the Cougars before, he says, disagreements with the coaching staff led him elsewhere.
Boone remembers being a “mental mess” when he first joined the Elks. A summer in Bend preceded a return home to the Seattle area, where an opportunity with Shoreline Community College awaited him. At that point, Boone was unsure of himself as a pitcher, but he quickly returned to form and found a mentor who would become a lasting influence.
“I didn’t really grow at Washington State as a pitcher,” Boone says. “I was throwing like 8 miles per hour slower than I did in high school. I came to Bend and within a week or two Alan (Embree) had me throwing right again.”
Embree — who boasts 17 years of major league service and a World Series title with the Boston Red Sox — was an integral part of Boone’s life from the time he was the Elks’ pitching coach in 2015. Now, as head coach, he is still in Boone’s ear with advice that sticks.
“You could see he had stuff — he’s a big kid,” Embree says. “He asked about mechanics, we worked on some stuff, he kept asking some questions and he applied it.”
Embree’s guidance paid dividends for Boone, who starred for Shoreline CC in 2016 and earned a scholarship to Marshall University in West Virginia. He was finally back in NCAA Division I and ready to prove himself.
Then, the moment it seemed his career was back on track, he suffered a season-ending injury to his throwing arm. After just three total innings in relief for the Thundering Herd, he needed the elbow ligament reconstruction procedure known as Tommy John surgery.
Recovery from the procedure can be a lengthy, often frustrating process. Embree knows firsthand — he had the surgery at 22 years old in his second season with the Cleveland Indians. He preached mental toughness to Boone as doubt started to swirl again.
This summer — his final season in an Elks uniform — provides an opportunity for Boone to get consistent reps and prepare for his redshirt senior year at Marshall, one he hopes to parlay into a professional career. For now, though, he just wants to feel consistently healthy again.
“There’s days where I feel like I was before the surgery,” Boone explains. “And there’s days where you can tell that I got my arm cut open and had a whole new ligament put in. It’s getting better for sure.”
Along the winding road of Boone’s journey through college baseball, Embree has always been there to provide advice and inspiration. Boone calls him a “father figure.” Embree says Boone is “like a son” to him and sending him on his way will be “bittersweet.”
“He’ll always be welcome at my house,” Embree adds. “Knowing Sam, we’ll always keep in touch — whether it’s talking about baseball or life.”
Boone is unsure what lies ahead, but he feels confident in the support system he has developed over the years. High school coaches, current and former teammates and Embree are all on the bus with him. Where it stops remains to be seen.
“If I get back to where I was, I think I’ll have a shot to go pro,” Boone says. “If not, coaching is something I would definitely be interested in.”
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