Databases are important. Databases pay my bills, and presumably those of many of you reading this blog. But there are more important things in life than databases. I’d like to tell you a short story of how faith and perseverance can move mountains. I’d like to tell you about Ryan FitzPatrick, his family, and some people who believed in all of them; people who perhaps came to believe in themselves a little more after watching what this family has been through over the last year.
Last August, Ryan and my son Kyle were among the boys playing for the Redmond West team in a 12-year-old Little League All-Star tournament in Sumner, WA. Ryan was one of those five-tool kids who make you smile when you watch them – a gifted pitcher, a great fielder, a monster power hitter who always seemed to put the ball in play, speed personified on the basepaths, constantly with a huge grin on his face because he was clearly enjoying playing baseball so much. Everybody in the league knew him, and every other manager in the league always had his outfielders back up ten feet whenever Ryan stepped up to bat.
Well, in the championship game of the Sumner tournament, Ryan was warming up to pitch the sixth inning. His father, Dave, and I were standing next to each other on the third base line as we had so many times, sharing our usual banter and good humor as we anticipated another victory from our sons’ very good team, when we heard an awful snap from the pitcher’s mound and saw Ryan fall to the ground in a heap. I can’t remember when I’ve seen a human being move faster than Dave did to that pitcher’s mound. Those of a vintage to remember the travails of Dave Dravecky will understand the fear we all felt.
Dave rushed Ryan to the hospital, where it was discovered that he had fractured his right arm while throwing a warm-up pitch. After some initial challenges finding a diagnosis through six long weeks, Ryan and his family finally found the right doctors at Children’s Hospital of Seattle. The FitzPatricks learned to their great relief that Ryan in fact did not have cancer, as Dravecky had, but rather a pre-existing condition called Nonossifying Fibroma (NOF). Basically, Ryan had a void in the bone of his upper arm about the size of his thumb. According to Ryan’s doctor, baseball didn’t cause his injury. Ryan could’ve injured his arm throwing a sock or smacking his brother; it didn’t matter how many pitches Ryan threw during that tournament (and, Ryan being the competitor he is, he had thrown a fair amount).
We heard from Dave periodically through the fall and winter, as he kept us up to date on the family’s odyssey through the treatment and rehabilitation process. Ryan got clearance to play basketball in October, but even though the void in his bone was filling in, throwing a baseball was still out. Imagine my surprise, then, when I took Kyle and Zach (who by this point had relocated here and was playing baseball with Kyle) to their first Babe Ruth League practice this past March and found Ryan and Dave!
If Ryan’s right arm had healed to the point that he was able to play baseball this spring in the manner to which he was accustomed, that would be one heck of story; a story worth telling. But that’s not how Ryan’s saga has played out, at least to this point, and to my mind the events that have unfolded make for an even more remarkable tale.
Ryan FitzPatrick showed up at that practice with a right-handed glove, throwing left-handed.
During his recuperation over the winter, when his grandmother heard he’d be unable to play baseball because of the damage to his right arm, she asked (with that wonderful innocence typical of those with great, world-challenging ideas), “why can’t he throw left-handed?” Ryan rose to the challenge, as did Dave and his wife, Ryan’s mom, Corinne, who spent hours with him over the winter in their backyard working with him on his new throwing motion.
In our pre-season practices, it was readily apparent how hard Ryan was working. His movements, previously so graceful and natural, were different – actions which had been instinctive when he threw with his right hand required conscious thought to execute with his left, and early on you could see those wheels turning. With each practice, though, his movements grew less halting and more fluid. It was a remarkable transformation to watch, but the best thing about it was that the smile never left Ryan’s face.
Imagine for a moment you’re a thirteen year old boy who perhaps takes for granted – as most gifted thirteen year olds might – his ability to perform at a certain level on a baseball field. Then consider having your arm fracture in the middle of doing the thing you love doing most in the world, and having your doctor tell you that you can’t do that thing anymore. Then imagine working all winter with your mom to re-learn things that have been easy for you for your whole life. Then imagine showing up at spring practice, in front of people who remember you being a great player, doing everything “backwards.”
Ryan FitzPatrick has more guts in the hangnail on his left-hand pinky than this old fart has in his whole body.
Bill Mobley, the coach of our team, the Redmond Red Sox of the 13-and-under division of the Redmond Baseball Association, is another inspirational figure in this tale. It was Bill who took a chance and gave Ryan an opportunity to play. The effect this would have on Ryan – indeed, on the whole team – is still in the process of unfolding, but the state of affairs to this point is remarkable indeed.
The Red Sox won the Redmond City Championship in their age group by going 11-2 through the season as well as winning three games in the city tournament, with Ryan making his usual noise with his bat, as well as contributing strong defense at first and second base. My strongest and fondest memory of this season, strangely enough, is of one of the two games the team lost.
The Red Sox were getting blown out by the North Bend Rainiers. None of the team’s pitchers had performed particularly well, and the defense was flat. The Red Sox were down by at least ten runs, and the pitching staff was being battered with no signs of relief (pardon the pun) in sight. North Bend was looking as though it might be the Red Sox’ Waterloo.
With one out in the fifth inning, three pitchers and eight runs into the inning already, Bill Mobley took another chance. He brought in Ryan FitzPatrick, newly minted left-handed reliever, to pitch to the Rainiers. I found out later from Zach that there had been some preparation for this possibility; Ryan had pitched to Zach at a couple of practices. Many of us, though, were surprised; how was this going to go?
It didn’t start out that well; Ryan walked the first batter, beaned the second, walked the third and gave up a triple to the fourth, allowing three runs to score. Once again, though, Bill Mobley didn’t give up on Ryan and Ryan didn’t give up on the game he loves. Not only did he settle down after that rocky start, he struck out the next two batters he faced to end the inning. The smile on Ryan’s face after that first strikeout is something that I hope I never forget. It could have powered all of the data centers at Microsoft, with enough juice left over to light up Safeco Field.
Beyond that, though, in the middle of a blowout loss, the entire Red Sox team was cheering for Ryan. He was mobbed after that inning as though it was the seventh game of the World Series. Nobody cared anymore that the score of the game was something like 17-2. Everybody’s emphasis was on Ryan’s remarkable performance and the joy he took in it – not just that afternoon in North Bend, but the nine months he and his family spent preparing for that opportunity. Never have I been so proud to be associated with any group of people.
This is the brilliance of Bill Mobley, and the power of team sports, in a nutshell. A loss that could have crippled the team’s psyche for the rest of the season instead turned into a rallying point for all of the boys on the team.
Ryan had faith in himself. Bill Mobley had faith in Ryan. Mountains were moved.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the boys haven’t lost a game since that day. After sweeping through the rest of the season and the Redmond city tournament, the Red Sox will play in the Washington State Babe Ruth District 3 Championship in their age group. Were I a betting man, at this point I wouldn’t bet against them.
Whatever happens in that game, though, I will always treasure knowing Ryan and his family, and the lessons my boys and I have learned through that happy acquaintance. Lessons about faith and perseverance. Lessons about trust and joy. Lessons about asking “what can I do to make this better?” instead of asking “why did this happen to me?”
Wherever I hear from Ryan FitzPatrick in the future – and I am confident that I will, be it on the ball field or in the board room – I’ll always remember how much he taught his elders in his fourteenth year.
And we’re not done yet. Ryan FitzPatrick, throwing left-handed for the first time in his young life, made the All-Star team for the Redmond league, along with Kyle and five more of their Red Sox teammates. So we’ll get to spend another summer with Dave and Corinne, cheering our kids on, teaching them a little about baseball while they teach us so much more about the important things in life.
Truly a field of dreams.