Brendan Sullivan is a 1993 graduate of St. Albans and an All-Met at the Northwest Washington school. During the season, he will chronicle his experiences as a pitcher in the minor league system of the San Diego Padres.
The most important event of my professional baseball career did not occur on the mound or in the bullpen. It was not a new grip for my slider, a bases-loaded strikeout to save a game or an enlightened suggestion from a coach or manager. Instead, it was a phone conversation from my rookie league clubhouse in Idaho Falls, early in the summer of 1996.
I had been a submarine pitcher for just under three years but had never met, much less been coached by, anyone with experience in my pitching style. That day, I spoke to Dan Quisenberry for 30 minutes. "Quiz," a longtime friend of my pitching coach, Rick Sutcliffe, was a dominant submarine closer for the Kansas City Royals during the 1980s and the man who had defined the style. Our conversation changed my career.
Over the Top
I arrived at Stanford in the fall of 1993 as an overhand pitcher with a fastball in the 80- to 85-mph range, a curveball, slider and change-up. That repertoire had served me well in high school at St. Albans, but I found out quickly that Division I hitters were not going to be as impressed. The first live pitch I threw in a Cardinal uniform, during a fall intrasquad game, departed our Sunken Diamond much more quickly than it had approached home plate.
By the time the 1994 college season began, I was the 17th pitcher (out of 17) on the roster. No more than 10 traveled on road trips, and fewer than that actually pitched. In early March, a player I have never met changed my season -- and my career. We opened our conference schedule at home against Arizona State, losing two of three games. Both Sun Devils wins were saved in dominant fashion by a senior sidearm pitcher named Noah Peery.
The following Monday at practice, with Peery as inspiration, I began experimenting with my arm angle in the bullpen. Later that week I threw impressively in an intrasquad game, and within two weeks I made my college debut as a sidearmer, jumping from the last pitcher on the staff into the top seven. I have not thrown an overhand pitch since.
Peery was drafted by the New York Mets in 1994, converted to a knuckleballer and released within two seasons. He remains out of the game and unaware of the influence he had on my career.
My sidearm delivery has evolved into a submarine one. Each year since my first at Stanford, my arm angle -- and the velocity of my pitches -- has dropped. Today my hand nearly brushes the ground as I release the ball, and my sinking fastball ranges from 78 mph to 81 mph.
Dan Quisenberry filled our conversation with advice about delivery mechanics, practice techniques and strategy. Moreover, he convinced me that with my relatively soft fastball, slider and change-up, I possessed every physical tool that he used during his remarkable 12-year major league career. The key, he said, was not the speed of the ball but rather its movement and location -- not velocity, but consistency.
The baseball world continues to resist pitchers that stray too far from the traditional overhand fastball. In a game obsessed with radar gun readings and dominated by old school theories and older school coaches and evaluators, few understand the first thing about what I do -- and even fewer care to learn. Quisenberry gave me the confidence to ignore baseball tradition and trust my stuff.
Coaching my unorthodox style has proved difficult for even the smartest pitching coaches. Overhand pitchers are taught to stay tall through their delivery, keep their arm up, and make their breaking balls go down. I stay small, my hand skims the ground when I throw and my slider rises. But each coach has learned with me and aided my progress in his own way.
Dean Stotz at Stanford and Sutcliffe in Idaho Falls are the two most knowledgeable baseball men I have ever met. Major league veteran Darrel Akerfelds, my instructor for two years in Clinton, Iowa, and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., was responsible for my breakthrough season in 1998. My mound presence, vital no matter the arm angle, I learned long before I turned submariner -- from Dave Baad and Bob Brown at St. Albans.
Las Vegas Stars pitching coach Tom Brown has worked with a number of sidearmers and submariners in his career, including former Orioles Todd Frohwirth and Mark Eichhorn. This year is my first opportunity to train with someone of that experience. Amid the ups and downs of the first half of the season, I learn every day from Brown. Through his help, my change-up is the best it has ever been -- providing an extra weapon against left-handed hitters -- and his suggestion to vary the speed and location of my slider to certain batters has resulted in numerous strikeouts.
Often, the most valuable resources are other sidearm and submarine pitchers, a few of which are sprinkled through the Pacific Coast League and the rest of the minors. We tend to share mechanical keys, pitch grips and scouting reports regardless of uniform color. I am lucky now to not have to look very far for help. My younger brother, Teddy, was drafted by the Indians this month -- as a sidearm right-hander out of Duke. The thousands of hours of catch in the back yard have definitely paid off.
Gone, Not Forgotten
Last fall Dan Quisenberry passed away, the victim of a brain tumor at the age of 45. Since the day of our conversation three years ago, I have never stopped believing that my submarine delivery and 80-mph fastball are good enough to beat major league hitters. Regardless of whether I play a single day in the big leagues, I will not forget him or his inspiration.
I had planned on writing him at the conclusion of last season to explain how influential those 30 minutes had been, but never did. Instead, I have written the number 29 (Quiz's uniform number) inside the letter "Q" underneath the brim of my hat.
Whether my career ends in one year or 15, in Las Vegas or San Diego, the Q will be there when I throw my final pitch. Without the confidence and direction he gave me, I know that career might already be finished.
Brendan Sullivan's Statistics
W-L G ERA IP BB SO HBP
1-4 25 7.93 36.1 19 29 10
CAPTION: Brendan Sullivan, left, who is trying to make it as submarine pitcher in San Diego Padres system, credits Dan Quisenberry with helping him with his pitching style and confidence.