Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
PROVO On paper, Apana Nakayama's collegiate baseball journey has only spanned about 10 miles the distance from Utah Valley State College, where he spent his first two years of eligibility, to Brigham Young University, where he spent the last two.
But factor in an LDS mission and the knee injury that confined him to the dugout last season, and you've got a long, strange trip that spans seven years.
"It's good to be back playing," Nakayama said. "I'm happy, I'm excited; especially this year, being a senior."
Nakayama was initially recruited by BYU out of high school in Hawaii, but the arrangements fell through and he instead began at UVSC. After his sophomore season in 2002, Nakayama transferred to BYU but first left on an LDS mission to Japan.
He returned for his junior season in 2005, in which he was the only BYU player to appear in all 59 games and led the team with 88 hits before finding his groove in the post-season, hitting .615 in the Mountain West Conference Tournament and being named to the All-Tournament team.
When the season ended, he went to play summer ball in the Cape Cod league but blew his knee out early in the season.
Coaches hoped to have Nakayama back for the 2006 season, but he made the decision to wait a year and make sure he was fully rehabbed. It was a difficult decision, and when the Cougars dropped their first eight games, it hit Nakayama all the harder.
"I wanted to try to help the team with my bat, but it was a decision I made to get better and not re-injure my knee so I could come back the next year," Nakayama said. "But it was really hard, because I knew what the seniors were going through and what the team was going through."
The Cougars rebounded and finished the season strong, compiling a 33-28 record and finishing second in the MWC. However, with eight of the team's top 10 hitters gone for this season, BYU was hurting for offense as this season began.
"We lost a lot of meat in the line-up," said BYU head coach Vance Law. "We really needed a run producer, and Apana certainly fits that mold. He hasn't had the kind of year yet that I expect him to he hasn't really gotten hot but once he does, he's going to really help us take off."
Through 20 games, Nakayama is batting .305 with 11 RBIs and shares the team lead in runs (18) and home runs (2). But he's only begun to scrape his potential; Law said he thinks Nakayama is capable of hitting .400 with 10-20 home runs and 70-80 RBIs on the season.
Nakayama says his knee feels fine now, though he can't squat and so his former position of catcher is out of the question. However, he has no problem running, so his transition to first base/designated hitter has been smooth so far.
But, Law said, the physical aspect of a comeback can sometimes be the easy part.
"I think (coming back) is more a mental thing, especially after coming off a mission and then after a year, getting hurt," Law said. "Basically all you do is lift and sit through practice without ever being in a game, and that's really hard on guys."
Nakayama and Law both agreed that the senior, one of just three on the team this year, placed too much pressure on himself to lead the team early in the year. But with a number of younger players coming on strong (three underclassmen are hitting .340 or better), Nakayama said he doesn't feel as much pressure and is beginning to relax.
After he graduates in April and finishes this season, Nakayama hopes to play ball at the next level. Law, a former pro player himself, said Nakayama has the potential and deserves a shot.
Nakayama has high hopes but is prepared to move on with his life if things don't work out and has nothing but fond memories of his career, both at UVSC and BYU."You build a friendship with everyone and there's just that team chemistry and camaraderie," he said. "Overall, baseball's not just a game, but you build friendships that you probably won't ever lose with players. They stick with you for the rest of your life."