In recent years, I’ve poked fun at a variety of D.C. sports figures — from John Wall to LaVar Arrington to Caron Butler — for throwing first pitches at Nationals Park that were a bit removed from the strike zone. Like, by a time zone or two.
Tom Willis is throwing out Wednesday’s first pitch, and I probably wouldn’t give him grief if he misses the plate. See, Willis — a native Washingtonian who grew up a devoted Senators fan in Takoma Park and has been waiting five years for this moment — was born without arms, and his first pitch routine involves a dropback, a hip rotation, and a “throw” from off the mound using his right foot. (See video above.)
And yet Willis does not want to be graded on a curve, so to speak. He wants to beat Wall, Arrington and Butler on the merits.
“When I’m showing people my abilities, I don’t want them to say ‘Oh, he bounced the ball, isn’t that nice?’,” Willis told me Saturday, not long after arriving back in D.C. from his current home in San Diego. “I want them to say ‘[Wow], he threw a strike.’ Anything less than a strike, and I’ll feel like I did less than I wanted to do.”
Willis, 53, is about midway through his goal to throw a first pitch for all 30 MLB teams. (The Nats will be his 15th, and he’s already scheduled to record No. 16 at a Mariners game later this season. See his Web site here.)
By his count, he has seven balls and seven strikes on his resume, and since his debut at a Padres-Nats game in 2008, his goal has been to deposit the ball into the catcher’s glove. That doesn’t change when he’s back in his hometown, even if he’ll likely be thinking about his childhood heroes, like Frank Howard, Del Unser and Mike Epstein.
“I’m going to go out there and I’m going to be seeing Senators,” he agreed. “I’m going to enjoy it as much as I can, but the second I step on that mound, I shut everything else out, and it’s just, ‘Please God, let me throw a good pitch.’ ”
Willis was often a designated runner or the umpire during childhood baseball games. He grew up with prosthetic arms, but was more comfortable using his feet, and after he accepted his diploma at Archbishop Carroll, he took the arms off and never used them again.
He went on to the University of Maryland for undergrad and grad school, working for the Department of Agriculture for more than a decade before moving to San Diego. After founding his own television production company in California, Willis started delivering motivational speeches to schools and professional groups, where he’d use his feet to throw Frisbees and tennis balls into the crowd. After a San Diego television show did a feature on him, one of the editors joked that the Padres should offer him a contract.
Within a few weeks, the club had asked him to throw a first pitch. Willis went outside, measured out 60 feet and 6 inches and panicked.
“Holy crap, that’s really long,” he remembered thinking. “How the heck am I gonna do this without making a fool of myself?”
So he called a friend who coached little league pitchers, and they devised a rotation that would get the ball to the plate. (Willis uses a rubber ball that looks like a baseball but is about 2/3 the size, allowing him to grip it with his toes.) His first pitch came close to the plate, and the reaction from media coverage, friends and strangers convinced him to take his show to every stadium, eventually including the one in his hometown.
“I might not make it to 30, but I’ll have fun trying,” he said. “My goal is to help people understand that when you look at a person who has a disability, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a whole heck of a lot of abilities, including some that you can’t even imagine.”