PREP BASEBALL: Ditto making up for lost time (4/15)

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By Chuck Jones

Zach Ditto spent a season in what can only be described as baseball purgatory. It was a case of paradise lost. He couldn’t play or practice, only watch games like a casual fan.

Following the 2011 school year, Ditto transferred from Elizabethtown to Central Hardin. He was ruled ineligible because of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association transfer rules. The decision was appealed, but Ditto lost that as well.

The decision meant Ditto lost an entire season. He couldn’t play in a high school game for 658 days. That’s more than 15,792 hours without being able to take part in the game he loves. Or more than 947,520 minutes away from a sport he’s dedicated his life to growing up. Ditto had more than 56,851,200 seconds to think about nothing but baseball.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through, not being able to play,” Ditto said. “I was here but I wasn’t. It was so difficult.”

What made it tougher was watching the Bruins win the 17th District and 5th Region championships to reach the state tournament for the third consecutive year. Ditto wanted to be a part of it, but he could only watch from the other side of the fence.

“It hurt a little more coming to the games, but it wasn’t like I’m not going to come,” Ditto said. “I found out you don’t take things for granted. I never thought I wouldn’t be able to play. I couldn’t play. I wasn’t allowed to play. It was painful, so painful.”

After serving his one-year mandated KHSAA sentence, Ditto is finally doing what he loves again – playing baseball. He has made a huge impact this season, helping the Bruins to a 15-1 start.

More importantly, Ditto is having fun again. He’s able to be around his friends and the game he’s grown up playing. Life is good after spending a year in solitude.

“He seems so much happier now,” said Central Hardin senior Troy Squires, one of Ditto’s closest friends. “We’re trying to make it fun for him. I felt so bad for him. We spent numerous weekends together and we’d talk about how much it stinks.

“I could see him out there watching our games,” he added. “He couldn’t do anything. He just seems hungry. He wants to win. But I think the biggest thing is he’s just glad to be playing baseball again.”

It shows in his numbers, but also in his attitude. Ditto constantly wears a smile. The burden of being in the stands last season has been replaced with a newfound appreciation for the game.

“He’s ready to play every time he comes to the park,” Central Hardin coach Todd Thompson said. “He enjoys the game. He enjoys coming to the park for practice or games. He brings a lot of energy. I can tell he has a true passion for the game.”

That began at an early age for Ditto, who said he started playing baseball at age 4. He grew up playing in the Elizabethtown Area Baseball Commission league and immediately provided glimpses of his immense talent. Ditto was a part of several All-Stars teams, including a 12-year-old team which reached the Cal Ripken Ohio Valley Regional. He also played on a travel team with Squires after his EABC days.

Ditto was a part of the 2010 Elizabethtown team as a freshman before becoming the starting shortstop the next season. He led the Panthers with a .349 batting average. He also had a team-best 33 runs and 12 doubles. He drove in 25 runs, second-most on the team, and stole nine bases.

Off the field, though, Ditto was dealing with some personal issues such as his parents’ divorce. He decided he wanted to live with his father, who’s residence was in the Central Hardin district.

“That’s the reason I left (E’town),” Ditto said.

But that decision cost Ditto a season. At least in the eyes of the KHSAA.

Ditto attended games, but he was in exile. He didn’t have a team as he couldn’t practice or be in the dugout with the team, according to KHSAA rules.

To make the best use of his time, Ditto admitted to throwing with friends and hitting where he could to keep the mechanics of his swing sharp. Nonetheless, his main focus was working in the weight room to add strength.

After a year without baseball, this season couldn’t get here fast enough for Ditto. He was able to participate in the team’s offseason program. But nothing compared to the feeling of taking the field against Glasgow in Central Hardin’s season opener March 19.

“There was no better feeling,” Ditto said. “It was a huge relief to finally be playing again. I was just ready to go. I can’t describe what it was like.”

The first step for Ditto was getting back on the field, but then the next one might have been the biggest hurdle: producing once again. After a year away — it wasn’t that he doubted himself — but could he pick up where he left off two years ago?

Ditto has answered that question with a resounding “yes.” He was batting .528 with four doubles, two home runs and one triple through 14 games. He had 16 RBIs and scored 16 times. Ditto also had seven stolen bases.

“He has great speed and power,” Thompson said. “He adds a lot to this lineup. He can bunt if need be, but he can drive the ball in the gaps. He’s a strong kid and he has quick wrists. The torque he builds up with his lower half, he transfers that to his top half. You don’t see that much. He understands hitting so well.”

Ditto has kept a simple approach at the plate. Although he was anxious to step in the batter’s box again, Ditto hasn’t tried to do too much.

“I’ve stayed relaxed,” Ditto said. “I try to wait for my pitch and hit it where it’s pitched. That’s what I always tried to do.”

The biggest difference in Ditto’s game might be his defense. He struggled as a sophomore, making more than 30 errors. Maybe it’s a switch to second base or being more mature, but Ditto’s been rock solid for the Bruins.

“I was thinking too much,” Ditto said. “I had a lot going on and let it get to my head. I always played the infield since I was real young. It’s different playing second, seeing stuff off the bat. But I think it has helped me a lot.”

He has spent countless hours taking ground balls. When Ditto hasn’t been in the cage this season, he can be found at second base fielding ground ball after ground ball.

“The timing of it is a little different,” Thompson said. “He has worked hard. The big thing with us is second base has a lot of responsibilities when it comes to bunt coverages. But he has done a real good job for us.”

The job Ditto has done could be described as expected and remarkable in the same breath.

Coming back to a game predicated on timing, no one would have been surprised if it took time for Ditto to shake off the rust. The gifted senior,though, hasn’t had any such troubles, showcasing the same ability he did two years ago.

Ditto’s always been talented, but he isn’t the same player. Although his skills might be the same, Ditto’s tougher mentally after what he’s been through. The time away also helped him find how much the game truly means to him.

“I’m loving it,” Ditto said. “That’s the best way to describe. I’m just glad to be back. I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.