Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the Yankees' first-pitch policies.
Born without arms, Mira Mesa resident Tom Willis is the last person you'd expect to see throw out a ceremonial first pitch to kick off an MLB game.
However, Willis, president and founder of the Pitch for Awareness National Tour, has been doing so at ballparks across America since 2008; and on Tuesday night, he'll have the opportunity to toss the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, marking the 29th MLB ballpark in which Willis has thrown a first pitch.
"When I was a kid, I never dreamed of pitching," Willis told USA Today. "I'd throw a ball around, maybe, but it really wasn't until this whole thing started."
Starting his first pitch journey
Lifelong baseball fan Tom Willis was born without arms, but he didn’t let that stop him from throwing out a first pitch at every big league ballpark. pic.twitter.com/3rvZKvDgHR
— MLB (@MLB) September 23, 2022
The thing in question began in 2008, when a news station in San Diego wrote a story on Willis. At the time, Willis, a motivational speaker, liked to start each of his speeches by throwing balls and frisbees into the crowd to demonstrate to children listening that, although it may be different, he could still do everything the kids could do.
The station in question was none other than Cox Media, who, at the time, also aired San Diego Padres games. About a week after the story ran, the Padres, impressed by Willis' ability to throw without his arms, reached out and asked him to throw out a first pitch.
That pitch was well-received by the media. Tons of support and praise started flooding into Willis' inbox. That's the moment Willis realized there was an opportunity for something more than just pitching at stake. "This is an opportunity for me, as a disability awareness program, to help people better understand and accept the abilities of persons with disabilities, and not to focus on what that person can't do, but imagine what they can do."
At the time, the idea of throwing out a first pitch at all thirty stadiums was nothing more than a pipe dream though. "When I got back to my seat, I told my buddies, 'Guys, that was great. I should do that at all thirty stadiums,'" he recalled. "It was a tongue and cheek joke, but the more that happened as a result, the more I thought 'Maybe it's not such a bad idea.'"
Perseverance through adversity
Tom Willis is scheduled to throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium this Tuesday against Toronto.@JackCurryYES interviews Willis who after Tuesday will have thrown out the first pitch in 29 of the 30 #MLB ballparks.#YANKSonYES pic.twitter.com/99YVYKDceH
— YES Network (@YESNetwork) September 16, 2023
Willis had decided to attempt this feat before he ever got his second gig. It took him two years to put together the Pitch for Awareness National Tour event. You would think that with all the positive media attention Willis received, every team would've been thrilled to have Willis kick out a first pitch, but that wasn't necessarily the case.
"Ten or eleven teams, right off the bat, said 'Sure, we'd love to have you,'" claimed Willis. After the initial hype died down though, Willis hit a wall. Sure, he'd made it to more than a third of all ballparks, but teams' interest in him had disappeared. Willis wasn't sure he'd get any more opportunities let alone almost twenty more. "Some teams just said, 'No. We're not interested. No thank you.'" Willis continued, "The real holdouts though were the ones that said, 'We only give our [first] pitches to sponsors.'"
Surprisingly, more than a few teams fell into that final category. According to Willis, the Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies and Minnesota Twins were among the teams who employed that policy. As luck would have it though, Willis' journey was far from over.
"I had the good fortune to be introduced to David Samson, who was the president of the Miami Marlins at the time," said Willis. "He liked what I was doing. He made some phone calls, and suddenly I got four more teams." From there, Willis realized that getting to all thirty stadiums wasn't about what he did, but who he knew.
As the years wore on, Willis had called in multiple favors with Samson and other high-ranking MLB executives, but still had holdouts from the teams listed above. He had pitched at 24 stadiums by 2015, but after a few family tragedies and COVID, Willis was sure his journey had reached its end. There was one more lifeline Willis could reach out for though.
Getting a baseball 'miracle'
— Stadium (@Stadium) June 16, 2015
"I participate with a group called Build a Miracle through our church that builds houses for needy families down in Mexico," Willis mentioned. "When we build a house, there's usually a group that sponsors the house, who also sends a group of people to help build the house.
"As it turned out, out of nowhere, suddenly the San Diego Padres contacted our group and wanted to build a house. When I found out about that, I had to go down [to Mexico]. One of the people that was there was Erik Greupner."
On their way back from Mexico, Greupner told Willis he would see what he could do regarding the teams that were holding out. Lo and behold, within weeks the Phillies, Rockies, A's, and Twins were all reaching out to plan a date for Willis to toss a first pitch.
After Tuesday, the only team left on Willis' list will be the Los Angeles Angels. According to Willis, throughout this entire endeavor, they have remained adamant that anyone who throws out a ceremonial first pitch must be a team sponsor. Willis hopes he will finally get the team to break in 2024.
When Willis started this journey, he had hoped to be the first person to ever throw out a first pitch in all thirty MLB parks. That opportunity has passed though. Eight-year-old Hailey Dawson, a Nevada native born with Poland syndrome, giving her an underdeveloped right hand, became the first person to accomplish that feat on September 16, 2018. Ironically, her last first pitch was also at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. USA Today has reached out to the Angels and will update the story with any additional comment.
Still, Willis is excited to be the second person to achieve such a triumph. He lovingly states he'll still be the first to do so while throwing from the mound (or equal to mound distance) every time. In fact, that's something Willis takes pride in.
"I'm 64 years old now. My strength isn't what it used to be," said Willis. "I still practice. I go to the park about two or three times a week and I throw thirty to fifty balls, but sixty feet six inches is getting pretty far." Despite the loss of leg strength, Willis still plans on throwing from the mound for his final two ventures. He's not worried about accuracy at all. Willis claims that 12 of his 28 first pitches have been for strikes, and "that's not something most people can do."
What is Willis' favorite first pitch?
When asked to recount his most memorable first pitch experience, Willis was quick to mention Nationals Park. Willis was born in the D.C. area, and still has family there. "The one at Nationals Park was special to me, because I got to bring my mom with me," Willis said. "She got to come down to the field with me prior to the game, and she was able to see me pitch in person, which was great because she died a few years later." While the death of his mother put his first pitch goal on hold for some time, he has since realized that he would want his mother to see him finish his journey.
Despite the success on the mound, Willis understands that pitching is not the most important aspect of his tour. "I am first and foremost a motivational speaker," said Willis. "When I talk with kids, I tell (them) that regardless of who a person is, everyone is different, and it's okay to be different." Above all else, Willis wants to spread awareness for persons with disabilities and prove that anyone, regardless of how they look, can do anything if they set their mind to it.
Willis has been an inspiration to many along his journey, and while he takes pride in the fact that so many people have connected to his struggle and seen his message, he knows his story needs these final two pitches before it is complete. It took the Yankees long enough to agree. Starting on Wednesday, Willis' finish line will rest on the shoulders of the Los Angeles Angels' front office. Your move folks.
Baseball feel-good story: 'There was pain:' Brandon Hyde turned Orioles from a laughingstock to a juggernaut
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tom Willis: Man with no arms set to throw his 29th first pitch at Yankee Stadium