SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Outfielder David Dahl, a rising star in the Colorado Rockies' chain, peppers his conversations with the word "sir" when addressing authority figures. It's a courtly and respectful gesture that reflects his Alabama upbringing and validates the notion that he was raised properly.
Dahl's dark beard conceals a countenance that scouts like to refer to as "the good face," and his abundance of tools gives the Rockies hope he's one of several young players who can rescue the organization from its altitude-enhanced haze in a competitive National League West.
It seems everyone in the Colorado organization is convinced a big future awaits Dahl. In the short term, projections about his WAR or the number of All-Star teams he might make are dwarfed by a sense of gratitude that he's still here.
On May 28 last season, while playing center field for the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats in Connecticut, Dahl was involved in a serious collision at New Britain Stadium. He endured some harrowing moments before his arrival at Hartford Hospital, where emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding yielded to a difficult decision.
Dahl had sustained a Grade 4 laceration of his spleen (with a Grade 5 being the most severe), and he faced two choices: 1) Wait several months for the spleen to heal, miss most or all of the 2015 season and run the risk of suffering a recurrence of the injury on something as innocuous as a dive back into first base; or 2) consent to having the organ removed, a decision that would expedite the rehab process while possibly complicating his life down the road.
Dahl and his family chose the second option, and three days after the collision, surgeons removed the organ via a procedure known as a splenectomy. Dahl was back on the field by mid-July, and he arrived in Arizona this spring with aspirations of reaching the majors sometime this season.
Dahl's strong constitution is evident in his baseball-viewing habits. The video of the collision is readily available online, and he hasn't shied away from dissecting it.
"I've watched it a good bit," he says. "I look at it and I think, 'Maybe I should have caught it a little earlier.' I got kneed in the perfect spot where it lacerated my spleen, which is kind of crazy. The doctor actually told me at the hospital, 'You were lucky to get here. People can bleed out in the ambulance.' There's a chance I could have bled out if we didn't get there in time. It's pretty scary."
The experience doubled as a medical primer and a lesson in the fragility of a career, compressed into the tail end of a seemingly innocuous fly ball.
"If you would have told me at the beginning of the year, 'You ruptured your spleen,' I would have been like, 'What's a spleen?"' Dahl says.
Trapped in the Bermuda Triangle
The video of the collision packs an emotional wallop in 1 minute, 59 seconds of grainy footage. The play begins with Dahl stationed a few steps deeper than usual because the wind is blowing out toward center field. Altoona's Stetson Allie hits a blooper to center, and as Dahl races in, shortstop Trevor Story charges in from one side and second baseman Juan Ciriaco converges from the other in the classic "Bermuda Triangle" dynamic. Both Dahl and Ciriaco stake their claim to the ball by yelling "I got it!"
As Dahl slides to make the catch, Story peels off and takes a slight hop before coming to a halt. But it's too late for Ciriaco, whose knee collides with Dahl's torso and then his head, spinning him around and sending him sprawling to the turf.
As Dahl lies motionless on the outfield grass, the ball rolls free. And everyone in the vicinity knows it's bad.
"I remember hearing a big thud," Story says. "I knew Ciri caught him pretty flush in the chest area with his knee. David was just lying there, and you could tell he was hurt. I knew it was serious right away."
Billy Whitehead, New Britain's athletic trainer, watched the play unfold from the dugout and rushed to the outfield to provide aid. By the time he arrived, Dahl was sitting up and moving his extremities, so Whitehead knew he had avoided a cervical fracture or other damage to his spine. Dahl was bleeding slightly from the nose and appeared free of concussion symptoms. But he complained about a pain in his left side near the bottom of the rib cage, a tell-tale sign that he might have sustained damage to his spleen.
Although Dahl walked off the field under his own power, he was overcome by nausea and the pain quickly radiated up to his left shoulder. Whitehead kept Rockies player development director Zach Wilson updated by phone and arranged for a ride to Hartford Hospital, but the sense of urgency increased once paramedics arrived on the scene. They evaluated Dahl, placed him on a stretcher and quickly summoned an ambulance.
Dahl made the roughly 15-mile drive to Hartford accompanied by his father, Mike, who was visiting from Alabama. After taking a CAT scan, doctors sprung into action to stanch the bleeding. Two days later, when Dahl's status had stabilized, the doctors laid out the scenarios and the long-term ramifications.
The spleen, a lymphatic organ located in the upper-left portion of the abdomen, filters blood and plays a major role in the immune system. It's protected by the ribs, but the consequences can be dire when it absorbs a significant blow. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith lacerated his spleen in December 2014, missed the regular-season finale and spent the offseason in recovery mode. In September, an autopsy determined that Evan Murray, a 17-year-old quarterback at Warren Hills Regional High School in New Jersey, had died of massive internal bleeding following a spleen-related injury.
Dahl was the second Eastern League player to damage his spleen during the 2015 season. In April, Altoona outfielder Jonathan Schwind underwent emergency surgery after suffering a ruptured spleen in a game against the Erie SeaWolves. Schwind appeared in only 22 games all season.
Once Dahl and his family agreed on the splenectomy as their course of action, surgeons removed the organ with a laparoscope -- a lighted tube that's inserted through an incision in the abdomen and is less invasive than the traditional open surgery. But the procedure still took roughly six hours to complete.
For the next eight days, as Dahl lay in his hospital bed hooked to an IV tube and groggy from pain medication, he felt his spirits lift through an outpouring of concern. Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and manager Walt Weiss sent get-well texts, and his former teammates in Asheville and Modesto let him know they were thinking of him. His fellow New Britain Rock Cats came to Hartford for a visit, and Dahl sent out a tweet thanking fans for their support.
Thank you for the thoughts and prayers! Surgery went well and now I'm currently resting in my room— David Dahl (@ddahl21) June 2, 2015
Dahl lost 10-12 pounds during his recovery, and visitors were stunned and emotionally affected to see how pale and gaunt he looked.
"It's hard not to be, unless you're a robot," says Duane Espy, Colorado's organizational hitting coordinator. "It was dramatic how much weight he had lost and how different he looked. It was a tough injury. He didn't look like himself."
The road back was laborious. Whitehead, who monitored Dahl's rehab, focused initially on pumping him with fluids and getting him back on a regular diet. At the outset, Dahl walked on a treadmill and wasn't able to lift more than 40 pounds. He began swinging a bat off a tee after four weeks before graduating to flips and then hitting in a cage. He also made consistent strides with his throwing and his outfield work, and by the time the Rockies sent him out on a rehab assignment at the six-week mark, he was squatting 185 pounds and running the 60-yard dash in 6.6 seconds.
Dahl returned to New Britain's lineup on July 17, and quickly crossed a mental and emotional barrier when he scored a run and the opposing catcher slapped a hard tag on him with no repercussions. He finished the season with a respectable .278 batting average and a .721 OPS in 73 games, even though his bat speed and energy level were clearly less than optimal.
Ten months after the collision, the fallout from Dahl's brush with baseball mortality is minimal. He's more susceptible to pneumonia, the flu or other viral infections without a spleen, so he receives a regimen of vaccinations and other shots. But his daily life is unaffected.
"Right now, David is really young, so his immune system is strong," Whitehead says. "He's healthy and active, so it's not a big [issue] for him. Later in life, as he gets older, it might be more of a concern."
David, meet Dahl
As an athlete and competitor, Dahl has always been ahead of the curve. At Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, Alabama, he played shortstop and batted third for the high school varsity as a freshman. He committed to Auburn University as a sophomore, but the Rockies dissuaded him from going the college route when they picked him 10th overall in the draft and signed him to a $2.6 million bonus.
Dahl has overcome some setbacks -- self-imposed and otherwise -- on his journey through the system. In April 2013, the Rockies demoted him from the Class A South Atlantic League to extended spring training when he missed a team flight. Dahl vowed publicly to learn from the incident, but his progress stalled when he missed most of the 2013 season with a torn hamstring.
"He's matured a lot, and I think he would tell you that," says Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich. "He was young and not particularly worldly, and he had to deal with expectations and go through the same growth process a lot of young players go through."
Dahl's increased commitment to baseball was evident in the winter before the 2015 season, when he moved in with one of his agents, Paul Cobbe of the Sosnick Cobbe & Karon group, in the San Francisco Bay area. Dahl changed his diet, worked out twice a day and spent Saturdays with Cobbe watching college football and debating the relative merits of the Southeastern Conference and the Pac-12.
After months of eating grilled chicken and vegetables and immersing himself in his training, Dahl simply couldn't abide the thought of missing an entire season because of an unfortunate twist of fate.
"I think he realized baseball was a career as much as a game," says Adam Karon, Dahl's main representative. "He made a significant transformation in his training, and he didn't want to sacrifice all the hours that he put in. So he sacrificed his spleen. I think that's what it came down to."
Although Dahl can be intense on the field and seems unassuming at first glance, the people close to him claim he has a more playful and entertaining side around his teammates. He has a touch of the agitator to him.
"If you would have told me at the beginning of the year, 'You ruptured your spleen,' I would have been like, 'What's a spleen?'"David Dahl
"We like to joke that he has two personalities," Story says. "There's David, the humble and nice guy, and there's Dahl, the funny guy who's always messing around and talking trash."
Dahl is big on banter during spirited games of NBA 2K16, in which he has embraced Houston Rockets guard James Harden as his go-to scoring threat. Dahl and Story set up a mini-golf hole in the living room upon arrival at their Cactus League apartment this spring. They take part in regular closest-to-the-pin contests with a pitching wedge; the loser is obligated to pay for coffee.
"He's bought me a lot of coffee," Story says.
Rockies fans who are willing to move past the obligatory fatalism surrounding the team can see some glimmers of hope in Arizona this spring. Dahl turns 22 on April 1. Throw Story, third baseman Ryan McMahon, outfielder Raimel Tapia and young shortstop Brendan Rodgers into the mix with All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado, and Colorado has a promising nucleus of young players ready to assume the leadership mantle from Carlos Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, who left for Toronto by trade last July.
"We won't put any limitations on David, just like we don't with any of our players," Wilson says. "He's got a really good head on his shoulders, and he's at a point in his career where everything is starting to come together. He has a very high ceiling, and I have no doubt that he will hit it, because of who he is, innately."
The great scare of 2015 is behind him, to the point that Dahl -- in contrast to his alter ego, David -- feels free to joke about his new life without a spleen.
"I feel great," he says. "Just a little lighter."