This morning, Willis had an eighty-minute drive from his home in Mira Mesa to Angel Stadium in Anaheim. He'd thrown out a first pitch at 29 ballparks. Only the Los Angeles Angels remained.
You would think there would be nerves flowing through every ounce of Willis' body, but not really. He'd been chasing this goal for 15 years, ever since he threw out the first pitch in San Diego in 2008.
Rain and Ghosts
On the drive, Willis, accompanied by his wife, Mary Lou, friend Louie Knaiger, photographer Logan Maclachlan, and driver Matt Olson, seemed calm, relieved even.
"I think he was just trying not to get carsick," Mary Lou told USA Today. Tom and his colleagues talked about anything but the first pitch for most of the drive, only shifting their attention that way when rain started coming down around 10 a.m. "Rain and ghosts," said Olson. "It was an hour and twenty-minute drive. We probably talked about those for an hour and ten of it."
The rain started coming down pretty hard too. The tarp had to be brought out onto the field around 10:30, an hour before Tom's first pitch was scheduled. Nobody expected it to pour like it did, and suddenly, there was serious concern that Tom's first pitch was going to be delayed or even canceled.
This was the final day of the regular season, and the game between the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics would have no effect on the standings or the playoffs. If the rain didn't halt, there was a legitimate threat that the game would be canceled, forcing Tom to wait until 2024 for the final leg of his tour.
Tom wasn't worried though. He had never had a first pitch rained out. He recalled one close call in Baltimore a few years back, "About 45 minutes before the game, there was hail," Tom said. Of course, Willis did eventually throw out the pitch, but he didn't have the opportunity to pitch from the mound. "That was the only time I didn't pitch from the mound," Willis shrugged.
Getting elusive No. 30:
Pitching from the mound is something Tom takes immense pride in. As a motivational speaker spreading awareness for persons with disabilities, Willis stressed the importance of throwing from the mound, wanting to show that his lack of arms doesn't prevent him from throwing a strike from the mound. "I want people to focus on what I can do, rather than what I can't."
The rain ceased around 10:50, plenty of time before Willis' first pitch. Willis and his entourage made their way down to the field. Willis answered questions from the media, telling them what an honor it was to finally get his 30th first pitch, how he grips the ball, how the journey began, and before he knew it, it was time.
The stadium's PA announcer made Tom's accomplishment known, "Our ceremonial first pitch is a special one. Tom Willis has thrown a first pitch at 29 MLB stadiums. This will be his 30th." The fans cheered and watched. You could see Tom take in the the moment with a deep breath as he stepped on the mound. The reality of his situation setting in. Willis took his shoes off and kicked the ball toward catcher Kenny Rosenberg. It bounced just in front of home plate, and Willis' goal had been achieved.
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Countless road trips to different stadiums, flights on his dime, and days writing letters begging different teams to give him a chance, all of it in Willis' rear view mirror, and well worth it.
Tom fell to his knees, rolled onto his back, and kicked his feet into the air, shaking them ecstatically. After the pitch, I asked Tom whether that was out of excitement or relief. "Relief," Tom answered. "No more pitching. Yay!"
End of a long journey:
Mary Lou saw that relief coming. "It's the end of a long journey, and I think [Tom] is glad it's coming to an end," said Mary Lou. "If you saw all the paperwork he had to do to send to all the stadiums...it was bad." After 15 years, it only makes sense that Tom would be glad it's over.
After the pitch, the Angels' Mickey Moniak gifted Willis a jersey to commemorate his accomplishment. The number? 30, of course. Willis said it was just the second jersey he'd ever received from a team. "The Blue Jays gave me a jersey with the number one on it. They were the only other team to give me a jersey." Willis loved the Angels' gift though, even telling his wife "I might sleep in this jersey tonight."
Now that he'd been to all 30 MLB parks, I asked Tom to recount his favorite. Tom didn't have a straight answer though. "Every one is different and has a story attached to it."
Whether it was driving up to a game in Oakland and trying to get into the GM's front office unannounced, being put up in a hotel by Kansas City so he could be a guest of honor at a charity 5K a few days after his first pitch, throwing out the first pitch at Nationals Park in front of his mother, throwing out TWO first pitches at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, or speaking with Rockies' manager Bud Black, there wasn't one stadium or team that Willis could put above the rest.
Willis is now the second person to have thrown out a first pitch at every MLB stadium. The only other being eight-year-old Hailey Dawson, who finished her journey on September 16, 2017 at, coincidentally, Angel Stadium. Willis appreciated the honor still. He claims that it would have been nice to be the first, but the tour was never about being the first, but rather spreading his message. He actually enjoyed the fact that it came on the final day of the regular season. "It adds a sense of finality to it all," Willis remarked. "I just really wish it was a strike."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tom Willis: After 15 years, armless man realizes first-pitch dream