Buoyed by son's well-being, Brooks eyes spot on Cardinals

March 11th, 2022

JUPITER, Fla. -- Experiencing a helplessness more paralyzing than anything he had ever felt on a pitching mound, Aaron Brooks’ only recourse for the pain he felt on Sept. 21, 2020, was to sprawl his 6-foot-1 body across his 2-year-old son’s bed half a world away in Gwangju, South Korea.

That was the day when young Westin Brooks, an infant at the time, lost his left eye and suffered various fractures after a pickup truck ran a stop sign and barreled into the side of the family’s GMC Yukon near Washington County, Kan.

At that time, Brooks was pitching for the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. The now-31-year-old received a frantic call from his wife Whitney at about 7 a.m. in South Korea, telling him about the accident and informing him that Westin was being airlifted to a hospital in Kansas City. Brooks couldn’t board a 15-hour flight back to the U.S. until roughly 11 hours later, so all he could think to do was to retreat to his son’s bedroom and pray.

“It was a 7 a.m. wakeup call for me, and I couldn’t get onto a plane until about 6 p.m. that night. Then, 15 hours after that [for the flight], so it was 30 hours before I could be there,” recalled Brooks, after throwing a live BP session at Cardinals Minor League Spring Training on Thursday. “All I could do was lay in his bed in Korea because I couldn’t really do anything but hope for the best.

“It could have been a lot worse. It was really close that he wouldn’t be here right now.”

Westin, who attended the Spring Training camp as an observer earlier in the week, is hopeful that he’ll get to see his dad pitch in St. Louis this season. The Cardinals signed Brooks to a one-year deal largely because of his ability to throw strikes and efficiently get outs. He was 14-9 with a 2.79 ERA over 36 starts in two seasons in the KBO, and he has a stellar 1.8 walks-per-nine-innings ratio over his 11-year career as a professional pitcher. A ninth-round Draft pick by Kansas City in 2011, Brooks has a 9-13 record in 47 Major League games with the Royals, A's and Orioles.

Brooks’ ability to throw strikes and his willingness to challenge hitters should be extremely beneficial for a Cardinals staff that ranked last in the Majors in walk rate (10.1%) and set an MLB record with 29 walks with the bases loaded last season. Throughout his career, he has split time as a starter and a reliever, and he figures to compete for a setup role out of the Cardinals' bullpen.

“My main focus of coming to St. Louis was the opportunity, and the way I pitch was what they are looking for -- strikes and ground balls,” Brooks said. “Selfishly, it’s six hours from where I lived and my family lives [in Manhattan, Kan.] And my son has a lot of surgeries [coming up] in Kansas City.”

Brooks claims that he is a far different -- and much improved -- pitcher now than he was when he was last at the MLB level in 2019 with the A’s and Orioles. He said his two seasons of pitching in Korea helped to build his confidence and teach him to better trust his skills. Years of spotty luck in baseball made him a bit hesitant, and his time with a Korean team that believed in his skills did wonders, he said.

“I’d say 100 percent [that I'm a better pitcher],” Brooks said. “[In Korea] you don’t have to pitch and then look over your shoulder to see if you are the one going down. Unfortunately, that’s been how my career has panned out for the most part. To get the ball every five days, work on what I needed to work on, show myself and know that I can pitch, it was easier for me to relax and focus.”

At any point when Brooks gets down on himself or goes through a stretch of bad outings, he said all he has to do is think about what Westin, his daughter Monroe and Whitney have been through in the 18 months since the wreck to regain the proper perspective. Westin, who has a couple more cosmetic surgeries remaining, still has vision in his right eye and opens up his stance when throwing toy balls to his father.

“He’s a Superman,” Brooks said. “It’s a blessing seeing him now every day, and I’m thanking the good Lord. I’ve seen videos that my wife has taken of him while I’m on the mound, and he’s going through his motion just like me and throwing the ball, so it’s amazing.