When 18-year-old Tommy Sherman joined Meadows Farms late in the season as a relief pitcher, the Fredericksburg baseball team was 0-9 in its regional semipro league.
"The players just didn't jell and, truth is, it's hard to jell when you're being beat night after night," Coach Mike Zitz said. "We were having such a hard time."
By taking on Tommy, Zitz worried about an even rockier start for a team already looking forward to a quiet end. That's because Tommy has cerebral palsy, which severely limits his muscle coordination and movement. Although several surgeries, body braces and years of physical therapy have improved Tommy's condition, his motor skills are noticeably impaired -- and made even more conspicuous in a world of athletes.
Tommy's dad, Tom Sherman, said he didn't take his son too seriously when he said he wanted to play in a league where most of the guys stood about five inches taller.
"You hear about people who say they climbed a mountain because it's there," Sherman said. "My son says, 'Same ball, same bat, same glove. I'll go do it.' "
Zitz said he was never worried about Tommy's ability.
"I had seen him pitch in high school, and he impressed me," he said. But morale on the team was so low that the players were itching to blame anything. Tommy would be an easy target, and letting a 140-pound kid with disabilities pitch could have been interpreted by the players as a sign their coach had given up on the season, Zitz said.
Meadows Farms won its first game of the season on Tommy's first day on the team. Tommy spent the game on the bench -- where Zitz made him stay for the next three weeks.
"It didn't bother me," said Tommy, who joined the team in June after graduating from James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg. "It's a team sport. I'll get my chance. I'll take what I can get."
Then on July 17, with Meadows Farms enjoying a rare comfortable lead in a game against the Fairfax Heat, Zitz saw an opportunity to put Tommy on the mound without creating too many waves. What no one expected was that Zitz had unleashed a tsunami.
Tommy pitched a perfect inning.
"It's definitely a deceptive pitch," said Fairfax Heat's Tom Gulino, who couldn't get a hit off Tommy. "Plus, he's not a real imposing figure on the mound, and that makes it sort of tough."
Therein lies the punch behind Tommy's 50-mph knuckleballs and sinkers: The ball taunts the batter on its leisurely ride to the plate, inevitably forcing the opponent to lose his cool.
"These huge, 220-pound guys are thinking, 'I'm gonna tee off on this,' " Zitz said, referring to the kind of players found in the Industrial Baseball League of Northern Virginia, many of whom have played college or professional ball. But these big guys tend to overswing, Zitz said, "and just end up looking silly. Sometimes, you can hear people laughing in the stands."
That inning, Tommy, a left-hander, retired the batters in order and, according to Zitz and Tommy's teammates, was key in the team's unbelievable 10-2 late-season comeback, including six wins in row. In 11 innings pitched, Tommy allowed only two runs, both unearned, while striking out five batters and walking one. The team ended its regular season Aug. 7 with a 10-12 record but continues to play non-league games.
"He's a catalyst not only on the field but also in the dugout," said teammate Aaron Altscher. "There's a passion that Tommy has that I've never seen before. I don't know the full story of his illness, but he's been a real inspiration for us."
Sherman said he got Tommy -- whose cerebral palsy was diagnosed when he was 2 -- involved in sports because he thought it would be socially beneficial. He figured Tommy might make a good umpire one day or perhaps help manage a team. He didn't think playing sports would become Tommy's life. He started coaching Tommy's teams, from grade school T-ball through high school, just to make sure his son got time on the field.
"I wanted to give him a chance to pitch in one game, just so that he could say that he did it," Sherman said. "But he developed the ability to get the ball over the plate." Sherman said his son worked hard from that point on to improve.
"I may not be the most stellar athlete out there," said Tommy, a big admirer of knuckleballer Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox. "But I make my presence known."
Zitz said that Tommy's style is actually more effective in the Industrial Baseball League because its wooden bats, as opposed to the aluminum bats used by high school and college players, make it harder for batters to adjust to off-pace balls. Also, given the maturity of its players, the league is more accepting of Tommy, his dad said, unlike the high-schoolers who often made an issue of Tommy's condition.
"These guys are out there to play," Sherman said. "I sat by the other team's dugout, and the guy came back and said, 'It's a tough ball to hit. He threw me one, and it just dropped on me.' And that was it."
"I play because I love the game, and that's the bottom line," Tommy said. "I don't care who it's against. I don't care if it's the New York Yankees. I'd still go out there and throw my game."