200 Percent: Overcoming Life’s Curve Ball

He steps up on the mound, foot on the rubber and leans forward to pick up the sign from his catcher. Going through his motion, the ball is fired toward home plate. Yet, unlike most left-handed pitchers, there is an extra step for 21-year-old Bryan Sullivan. Rather than following through beyond releasing the ball, Sullivan brings his left hand, the hand he just threw the ball with, into his glove readying him for what may come back.

Bryan was born with cerebral palsy and suffers from hemiparesis, or slight paralysis or weakness that affects the right side of his body. Despite the physical limitations, he does not let his condition hold him back, yet uses it as a means to push himself that much harder. Sullivan weighs in at 180 pounds and stands 5’11”. His bio on Facebook reads: “I’m Bryan. I like to play baseball and meet new people.”

When Bryan was 6 years-old he was watching a New York Yankees game with his father. They were playing the Orioles and Bryan noticed something unique about the pitcher. Bryan asked his dad, “Who is that pitching?” His father replied, “That’s Jim Abott, he catches and throws with the same hand.”

If he can do it, I can do it.

From that moment on, his life has revolved around becoming the best pitcher he can be and following that one simple phrase for motivation.

His father, Steve Sullivan, was, and still is, a huge part of Bryan’s life. Steve grew up around the game of baseball and his father worked at Yankee Stadium. “It’s in our blood,” he said. “I told Bryan, ‘You can do anything, you just have to learn how and work at it, and we will find a way to do it.’”

But how to do it? A little blue baseball glove and a Wiffle Ball started it all just one day after Bryan had seen Jim Abott pitch.

After a series of trial and error, Bryan and his dad were able to make it work. “At first we tried to put his glove on his right hand,” said Steve. But Bryan did not have enough control over his right hand for that to work effectively. “We decided we would have to teach him to catch and throw with the same hand,” he said.

From there it was a gradual path of progression, upgrading from the Wiffle Ball to a tennis ball and finally a baseball; but it was a pitching coach from a nearby batting cage who helped Bryan and his father perfect the art. “My dad started teaching me, but I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to tell me,” said Bryan. Pitching instructor Kevin James is a coach at a batting cage in Waldwick, NJ called In the Swing. James helped Bryan perfect it all in order for him to start playing ball competitively.

“The amazing thing about Bryan is that everybody, once they met Bryan, was willing to do everything and anything they could in order to help him progress,” said Steve. He explained how In the Swing never took a dollar from him for the utilities they would use and James himself was reluctant to accept payment. He just wanted to make Bryan the best pitcher he could.

At the age of seven, Bryan was the youngest kid enrolled in Parisi Speed School and at the age of 8 he began to play little league. Two hours before every game, he and his father would go to a tennis court at the middle school near his house and hit some pregame batting practice. “I would try to hit it out of the courts,” said Bryan, “it was always a good warm-up.”

Second baseman Andrew Lupo was a teammate of Bryan’s for almost ten years, playing with Bryan since little league and later into high school. When asked about his first impression of Bryan, Andrew said, “I was only 8 so I didn’t really understand why he had to take off his glove to throw the ball, but we didn’t see him any different.”

A handful of pitching coaches later, along with more and more experience on the field, Bryan found himself stepping into the world of high school sports. It was here that he would face one of his biggest challenges yet; St. Joseph High School.

“I worked my ass off to prepare for St Joe’s,” recalled Bryan. “When I went to St. Joe’s I thought, I’m going to try my best at this, see if I can make it.” He was with his pitching coach at Pro Players three to four times a week preparing for tryouts and was waking up at 4:30 every morning to workout with his father. “You can check the records,” Steve told me, “Every morning we swiped that card at 4:30 and got to work.” On the last day of tryouts, Bryan noticed his name on the chalk board at the coach’s office had been erased. “I was devastated,” Bryan said, “but I began to think, ‘maybe this coach isn’t for me, maybe this school isn’t for me.’”

Academics weren’t easy for Bryan at St. Joe’s, either. Being placed in the special classes landed him with a bigger workload than he expected. “Kids would get in trouble during class and we would all get punished with extra homework,” he explained. Bryan put it simply, “I just didn’t feel like going there anymore.” He transferred to Paramus High School not too long after that, but not before looking into his baseball future at the school.

Bryan spoke to the freshman coach at Paramus High, Pat Warburton, and told him how it didn’t work out at St. Joe’s. He asked Coach Pat if he could play for him and one week later he was working out with the Paramus High School freshman team.

Bryan played ball for all four years at Paramus High School, where his ERA was one of the best in North Jersey. With perseverance and dedication, and of course an 81 mph fastball to back him up, Bryan was an asset to the team. When asked about playing with Sullivan in high school, Lupo, still playing second base behind Bryan said, “Bryan was always a great teammate. He was the first one on the field every day and the last one off it. He never made excuses for anything.”

During his senior year of high school, The New York Yankees picked up on Bryan’s story and invited him out to Old-Timers’ Day at the stadium. Initially, Bryan was supposed to meet Jim Abott, the man who inspired him. Unfortunately, Abott was unable to attend. Bryan still got to meet Nick Swisher, David Cone, Dwight Gooden and fellow lefty Andy Pettitte. “Never in my life did I think I’d be on the field at Yankee Stadium,” Bryan had said in an interview with The Record, “it was absolutely amazing.”

When asked how he feels baseball has shaped his son’s life, Bryan’s father said, “You learn how to deal with people. I think he is much more comfortable on a baseball field than he is anywhere else. It’s his comfort zone. We all have that somewhere in life, once he gets on that field and steps up on that mound, he’s a completely different person. He’s there, he wants to win, he’s got that competitive spirit and something just happens and takes over.”

Today, Bryan pitches for Ramapo College in North Jersey. Bryan initially went to Rutgers Newark where he was told he’d be playing all four years, only to find himself cut and told he had no talent to play at the college level.

Similar to his experience at St. Joe’s, Bryan stayed persistent. “No one expected me to go past high school, and no one expected me to go past Babe Ruth,” he said. “Everyone told me I can’t. I can’t do this and I can’t do that. I still get people who tell me I can’t throw. I can’t, I can’t. But guess what? I prove them wrong. You just have to have that mentality; I can compete with these kids. I can do this.”

“He’s dedicated so much time and effort to perfecting the craft,” Bryan’s father said. “And he knows he can play with these guys still, he is still playing in college with a disability. How many kids are still playing in college or not playing at all due to lack of talent? He’s overcome the disability and is still pitching in college.”

Bryan had been with the Ramapo College baseball team for 27 games before finally getting his first appearance on the mound last week. Head Coach Rich Martin had said to Bryan’s father, “Bryan can pitch; I’m just not comfortable with the way he has to transfer the glove. You know I’m kind of leery on whether or not he can handle it, despite playing competitive baseball for all these years.”

Bryan faced four batters his first inning pitching for Ramapo. He struck two batters out, let up a single and caused the last batter to pop out ending the inning. Bryan received the game ball and Coach Martin said, “I guess now I’m going to have to give you more opportunities.”

“Tell me I can’t,” Bryan told me. “Well I can, no one sees that. I have to prove everything. If everyone has to give 100 percent, as much as that is, I feel like I have to give 200 percent just to keep up with them.”

Bryan is currently taking a public speaking class at Ramapo where he gave a demonstration speech on how to catch and throw with the same hand. “No one could do it,” he said. “Even these big football jocks that thought it’d be easy, it took them five seconds to get the glove off and grab the ball.” It takes Bryan less than half a second. “Sometimes I have to bare hand it,” Bryan said. “It just comes back too quick to get the glove on. And my dad will yell at me and say, ‘We practiced this!’ But sometimes I just have to give up the glove.”

But Bryan will never give up the glove. Baseball is who he is and without it he wouldn’t be the person he is today. He said, “Some kids tell me I can’t do this. Well I can, but in a different way. So it’s like, what can’t I do? I can do anything.”