There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Nick King taking the field at shortstop for the UGA Bulldogs baseball team. But last Oct. 24, the final day of fall practice, King slid late into second base on a steal attempt and jammed his right foot into the base.
He dislocated his ankle and fractured his fibula.
“As soon as I saw it I thought I was done. I thought I wasn’t going to play this year,” King says.
King started the season opener but did miss out on starting four other early games, when Bulldogs coach Scott Stricklin decided to give him more time to heal.
Nonetheless, taking the field night in and night out has defined King’s short time in Athens. After transferring from Riverside (Calif.) City College before the start of the 2014-15 school year, the junior from Palm Springs, California, started all 54 games at shortstop in his first season with the Bulldogs.
He’s started 49 this season, with Georgia set to host its final three regular-season games, against Tennessee this Thursday through Saturday.
“That’s definitely a goal I set for myself,” King says of playing every day. “Doing it for the guys on the team is important to me.”
King’s almost constant on-field presence and high-level performance, especially remarkable following his injury, will suit him well when the Major League Baseball draft begins next month. These qualities put him in good company with former Georgia shortstops now playing professionally.
Bulldog legend and current Atlanta Brave Gordon Beckham started all 197 games during his three-year career. More recently, after starting 102 times in his last two seasons at UGA, Nelson Ward was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2014 and is currently progressing through the San Diego Padres minor-league system.
King said getting healthy was a long process and difficult time, but well worth it. Words of encouragement from UGA baseball trainer Sean Boland immediately after the injury and through rehabilitation and recovery put the senior’s mind at ease. Like clockwork, when the Bulldogs ran out onto Foley Field for opening day on Feb. 19, there was King, taking his usual spot at shortstop.
“It was really, really, really special for me,” King says. “I’m thinking, ‘Dang, I was just hurt a couple months ago, and look how I am now.’ I think it’s unbelievable.”
His coach appreciates the high value King’s presence in the lineup brings.
“He’s very steady out there,” Stricklin says. “It’s a really calming influence on our team. … When you’ve got your shortstop defensively taking care of it, it makes you feel pretty good.”
King still has a metal plate in his ankle, so Stricklin held him out of the starting lineup four times earlier this season for extra rest — decisions that were hard for both King and his coach.
“I want to play every game. It doesn’t matter how I feel. I want to go out there, and I want to play, but at the same time I trust him,” King says.
In addition to starting nearly every game at shortstop for UGA, King can further improve his prospects to join Beckham and Ward in the pros by playing to his strengths — defense, speed, and overall athleticism — skills he honed initially playing football and basketball in high school.
“He’s a good-looking athlete, no question … moves well, above average arm,” says Eric Ruben, an associate scout for the Braves, who emphasized these characteristics as the top tools he looks for in a college shortstop.
However, King insists his full attention remains on improving his game and leading his team.
“He’s been like my mentor out there,” says freshman second baseman LJ Talley, who forms Georgia’s double-play combination with King. “When I won’t make a play out there or just be close to one and kind of get on myself, he’ll just smile and be like, ‘Come on man, you’re good, get the next one.’”
King looks forward to every game, but the upcoming series against Tennessee will be extra special. His mom, Laurie King, will travel from California for the first time this season to watch him play his final collegiate home games.
“She’s 100 percent my biggest fan,” King says.
For Laurie, finding her son will not be hard. Nick will be where he always is: in the starting lineup, playing shortstop.
Corey Knapp is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.