Tom Willis is not like most people. He has no arms but he has thrown the ceremonial first pitch at nearly a dozen MLB ballparks since 2008. Willis, 52, hopes to throw the first pitch of a game in all 30 MLB stadiums, as part of his Pitch for Awareness Program, which includes a motivational speaking tour to schools and other organizations across the country. His latest expedition was to Los Angeles, where he threw the first pitch at Dodger Stadium before a Dodgers-Padres game on April 30. During the past three seasons, Willis has traveled 26,240 miles.
TPG: What physical condition were you born with?
Willis: I am a congenital bilateral upper amputee. That's a fancy way for saying no arms. As I was growing up, I also developed scoliosis and had to have spinal fusion surgery while in first grade.
TPG: Did you ever try to throw and play baseball as a child?
Willis: Yes, when I was in elementary school, I started trying to throw with my feet. At recess, all of the kids played baseball and always tried to get me involved. Another player would hit for me and then I would run. I grew up in Washington, so my friends and I would all pretend we were players for the Senators.
TPG: How did you start Pitch for Awareness?
Willis: Five years ago, I started doing a program at San Diego elementary schools called "No Hands, No Arms, No Problem." As part of my motivational speaking routine, I walk out into the auditorium and throw tennis balls and Frisbees into the crowd. I show the audience that I may not have arms, but that doesn't stop me from doing everything they can do. In 2008, Channel 4 San Diego ran a story on me for their segment, San Diego Insider, and played some clips from my routine. The Padres saw me throwing tennis balls and called me up to throw out the first pitch at a game. When I did it, I got a great response from the stands and media and thought hey, wouldn't it be amazing to do this at every stadium in the country? Now, when I go to a city, I speak at a school or rotary club courtesy of the MLB team. It gives me a chance to reach out to communities across the country.
TPG: You recently threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium when the Padres came to town. Did the crowd know you were from San Diego?
Willis: I don't believe anyone in the stands knew I was from San Diego, but most of the Padres knew from my experiences with the team. My allegiance is with baseball, though, not just one particular team. My original team was the Senators, but they left Washington a long time ago. If I'm at Dodgers Stadium, I'll root for the Dodgers. If I'm in Washington, I'll root for the Nationals. Wherever, I take the mound, I always make sure to wear that team's hat. My jersey is a special jersey that says, "Pitch for Awareness."
TPG: How many MLB stadiums have you thrown out first pitches at?
Willis: Dodger Stadium was No. 11. Previously, I'd thrown out the first pitch at the home parks of the Padres, Rays, Marlins, Brewers, Cardinals, Indians, Blue Jays, Tigers, Reds and Rangers. I've got the Red Sox and Diamondbacks both coming up in July.
TPG: Which team had the best mound?
Willis: They're all very similar since they have to meet MLB standards. I'd say maybe one or two weren't as good. The mounds are very meticulous and solid, so I'm surprised they even let me throw from them. I try to tread lightly out to the rubber. I have to pitch barefoot, so some of the dirt leaves with me.
TPG: How exactly do you pitch?
Willis: Basically, I hold the ball with my right foot and step back with my left leg. Then I lift my left leg into a kick like a real pitcher does. I bring that leg down slowly and the right leg comes up. Using the momentum that I've created in my hips when I bring my left foot forward, I get an extra whip and just try to throw straight at the catcher with the ball coming from my right foot. Most times it gets there. It's similar to the same way people throw with their arms, but I do it with my legs and feet.
TPG: How fast do you throw?
Willis: I wouldn't consider my pitch a fastball. I call it "The Heave and Pray." One time at a carnival, I had my speed clocked at 0 mph. It turned out the radar gun didn't record any speed under 25 mph. The Dodger Stadium pitch had a ton of arc and looked like a softball strike. I'm not exactly throwing heat.
TPG: Do you plan on adding a breaking ball to your repertoire?
Willis: You never know, you just never know. I practice all the time at my neighborhood field. I have a list of mechanics known as the ABC's that I go through. A stands for alignment. When I get to the mound, I figure where exactly I'm going to stand. I try to find a spot where my left foot will come down at the same level as my right foot to be balanced when I throw the ball. The B is for ball. I always double-check to make sure I have the right grip. C is for catcher. When I'm ready, I turn forward and stare at the catcher's mitt. Once I do this, I don't look at anything else. The D is for drop back when I start my motion. E is for explode when I move my momentum forward. F is for the follow-through. I can't stop or jerk when I do this. Once I master all my mechanics, maybe I'll consider a breaking ball.
TPG: How would you compare yourself to other first pitch throwers?
Willis: Most people go up there and just throw the ball, but I try to be as successful as possible. I have three rules about the actual pitch: One, it has to get to the catcher. No lame ducks. Two, I can't throw it past the catcher. I have to make sure it's not over his head or all the way in the dugout. Three, I can't make a fool out of myself. No falling down or hitting someone in the head.
TPG: Of the 11 first pitches, how many have been strikes?
Willis: Out of the 11, I’ve thrown five strikes. A few have been a little bit outside and a couple did bounce short of the plate. I'm working to get back to .500 at Fenway. Now that I've been doing this awhile, I'm getting better. And the crowd loves when I throw strikes. When I first get called out, the crowd gives me a nice applause. Then it's silent when I pitch, but when I throw a strike, the crowd erupts. I love it.
TPG: If you had to compare yourself to one pitcher, who would it be?
Willis: Jim Abbott. He's the closest person I can compare myself to. He was an amputee and made it work. I know I’m never going to pitch for a pro team, but I look up to Abbott. He did what I'm trying to do: Step out of the disability box. People don't even expect me to reach the plate, let alone throw a strike.
TPG: If you could have any catcher, who would it be?
Willis: As I said earlier, when I was a child, my friends and I would all pretend to be our favorite Washington Senator. I always pretended to be Del Unser, who used to play centerfield. Around 15-20 years ago, while I still lived in Washington, I wrote an article for a local publication about a Senators vs. Orioles Old Timers' Day Game. I got to interview Unser, and since then, we've talked a few times. He's a scout for the Phillies now, so if I ever pitch in Philadelphia, I hope that he can catch me.
TPG: What stadiums are you looking forward to going to in the future?
Willis: I have the two in Boston and Arizona on my schedule right now, so I'm only looking forward to those two. One day, I'd like to do all 30. Most people say it can't be done. Each baseball team is an entity of itself with its own rules, so getting a new stadium to pitch at is tough. I can't just call the MLB and have them spread the word about me. I have to go to each team individually. I'm getting old and these pitches aren't as easy as they look. And they're not getting any easier. With my back the way it is, who knows if I'll have to call it off before 30.
TPG: What will you take away from this entire journey at the end?
Willis: John Wooden once said, "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do." When the Padres first called me 10 days before my first pitch, I was ecstatic and went out into the street to practice. I took a measuring tape and measured out 60 feet 6 inches. That’s when I realized it's a whole lot further than it is on television. I spent the entire next week and a half trying to toss pitches 60 feet, but each time, I could only reach 58 feet. When the game came, I walked out towards the mound and thought about stopping at the edge of the grass to throw a sure strike. Instead, I kept walking and went out to the mound even though I knew I would probably fail. In fact, I did fail; the ball only went 58 feet.
But by the next time I went out to an MLB mound, two years later, I could reach 60 feet. If I had not gone out to the mound that day and failed, I never would have had a motive to throw 60 feet. It showed me how you have to take chances in life or you'll miss out. It’s the same message I spread in my speeches when I go to all these cities: You have to step outside your comfort zone to achieve everything you want from life. I’ve met tons of people on this journey that I never would have met without taking some risks.
TPG: Have you become a bit of a celebrity?
Willis: When I typed in my name on Google last week, I was the top answer for "Tom Willis." I used to be on the third page behind the character from "The Jeffersons," the football player, the rugby player and some guy in Mississippi. Now I'm No. 1 and I’ve found myself in French, Irish, British, Canadian and Australian publications. ESPN and Fox News also covered my story. I've gone beyond a Channel 4 San Diego story on my school program.
TPG: How can people sponsor the Pitch for Awareness Tour?
Willis: Call me, e-mail me, do whatever you have to do. I appreciate any level of sponsorship that can help me fund my trips across the country. Sponsors can find my information at my two websites, pitchforawareness.com and Tomsfeet.com. If any corporation wants to sponsor me, I would proudly wear their patch on my jersey. I don’t care if it's a sandwich board on my shirt. Somewhere along this journey, I hope some business will like what I'm doing and help out. I really hope I can continue on with this for as long as it takes to reach all 30 stadiums.