Playing Hardball in South County 

St. Louis-based P3 is teaching baseball's hottest prospects a difficult skill: how to stay in the game

click to enlarge Ricky Maddock, a Kirkwood High student, works out at the P3 facility. Behind him is Zack Hunsicker, of Francis Howell High School.

STEVE TRUESDELL

Ricky Maddock, a Kirkwood High student, works out at the P3 facility. Behind him is Zack Hunsicker, of Francis Howell High School.

Brian Delunas, then a volunteer coach at the University of Missouri, was playing catch in 2006 when the vision in his left eye went out — suddenly he could see nothing from it.

The pitcher he was working with was throwing hard, "with a ton of movement," Delunas recalls. "I realized, there is no way I can do this."

Faced with serious medical issues earlier in his life, Delunas had not wavered. But now, not wanting to share too many details, he told the head coach simply that he had a doctor's appointment and drove back to St. Louis with limited vision.

Staff at the Washington University Medical Center measured his blood pressure and found that it was 220 over 160 — a normal reading is 120 over 80 — and that he had seven percent kidney function.

Delunas had once been a competitive pitcher. As a sophomore at Oakville High School, a Chicago Cubs scout measured his velocity and said it was 87 to 88 mph — the kind of reading that explains why it's a Chicago Cubs scout telling you your velocity.

"I would come in relief and had a strong arm and threw hard and threw well," Delunas says. "But I didn't know what I was doing in terms of pitching; I was just throwing it."

And at the beginning of his junior year, he tore his rotator cuff.

"I couldn't pick my arm up for what seemed like forever. My arm was just dangling by my side," he says.

He had two options: surgery, or rest and rehab. He opted for the latter and got back to throwing in the mid-80s. He was able to pitch at Missouri Baptist University and earned all-conference honors in 1998, but shoulder issues would still flare up now and then. After graduating, he continued to pitch in a men's league. The chances of making it to a high level at that point were just shy of none, but he tried to keep pitching through the pain with the help of twelve Aleve daily — even though you're not supposed to take more than three of the anti-inflammatory pills in 24 hours.

"I loved baseball so much that it cost me an organ," he says. "I loved baseball so much that I was willing to do whatever it took — legally — to continue to play,"

After his blind eye sent him racing to the doctor's office, he learned that a kidney condition that he thought wouldn't affect him for decades had gotten an early start. It was a genetic thing, but the Aleve certainly didn't help, he says. (He isn't the only pitcher. At the college and professional level, he says, "Kids walk around like it's a badge of honor to have a bottle of Aleve.")

What if he had faced facts earlier? Or, better yet, what if a coach had helped him adjust his arm pattern to avoid the injury?

The doctors told him he needed a donor. His younger brother, Adam, volunteered. After doctors determined that they were a match — and after Delunas did ten months of dialysis so that he could finish the season — they did the transplant surgery.

The brothers spent the next couple months recovering at their parents' house in Oakville.

"It was kind of fun. I got to spend a lot of time on the couch with my brother," Delunas says. When the doctors told them they needed to move, they would walk around the neighborhood "like two 100-year-old men."

Vision restored, Delunas, now 41, spends much of his time trying to solve the problems that plagued his pitching career, by looking at the way young pitchers move their hips and arms. A few years ago, he and another baseball instructor founded Premier Pitching and Performance, or P3, a St. Louis program that has attracted high school, college and professional pitchers. Many of them are eager to increase the velocity of their pitches — and avoid the kind of injuries that ended Delunas' career.

"You have guys who, given the chance to play, don't take it, and they walk away from the game," Delunas says. "For me, I can never figure that out, because I would do anything to be able to throw that one more pitch and that one more inning."

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