Going Yard: A Dad Inspires a Hero in Baseball and In LifeSean Sylver
Dillon Coleman’s love for the game of baseball stretches back even further than he can remember. His dad, Jeff, once a talented high school player, brought Dillon to Fenway Park before his first birthday. Dillon grew up rooting for Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox in Cromwell, CT – between Boston and New York City – the kind of place where you have to pick a side in the rivalry at an early age.
But there was always room for one New York Yankee on his wall: Jim Abbott. Abbott was a promising athlete at the University of Michigan who had become a successful Major League pitcher by September 4, 1993, when he achieved one of the game’s rarest feats: a no-hitter, wearing Bronx pinstripes, pitching for the Yankees. Around the time Dillon was born, Jeff Coleman wrote Abbott asking for advice. Abbott was born without a right hand. Dillon was born without a left.
Jeff and his wife Carol decided Dillon would have no limits. “My parents never really thought having one hand was a thing,” Dillon says. “It never was an excuse, not even when tying my shoes. I never said I only have one hand; I can’t do this.'” And so Dillon Coleman played baseball, just like Garciaparra, Martinez, Abbott, and his dad.
No limits meant Dillon had to work hard and persevere in the face of perception. When he was ten, he wasn’t picked for Little League. “Just convincing the other coaches I could play was a struggle.”
Dillon also played basketball. “When I was in 7th grade, a couple of kids who had quit the previous year came back and made the team and I got cut. Kids who didn’t even feel like playing made it and I had worked so hard. I went to my dad crying.” His dad’s advice was invaluable. He told Dillon, “If you keep working, people will fall out of your way. Your hard work will pay off and you will excel more than those kids will.”
Jeff coached Dillon, bought a batting cage and set it up in the yard, throwing him thousands of pitches every summer and helping him with his fielding. Dillon’s practice regimen required him to adapt his skills to fit a game that benefits players with two hands. He perfected his batting stroke, driving the ball with a right-handed grip like a tennis player delivering a thunderous backhand. And he had to learn how to switch his glove in the field, transitioning the ball from the pocket of the glove to his throwing hand in one seamless motion.
“Dad also told me I had to have the desire to work on my own and get the repetitions down.” Dillon’s hard work began to pay off when he started on the junior varsity baseball and basketball teams his freshman year of high school. By senior year, he was captain of the baseball team and his basketball team won the state championship. Though Dillon was unsure he would pursue baseball at the collegiate level, he picked Gordon College in Wenham, MA and walked onto the team.
Then one afternoon, Dillon made headline news. Not just at Gordon or back in Cromwell, but national news: CNN. To use a baseball term, Dillon Coleman went yard.
In a sport that rewards patience, the home run is the closest thing to instant gratification in baseball. The hitter connects with full force, the ball soars over the fence, the crowd roars like a lion, and runners break from confinement at their respective bases, trotting home to high five their hero. Yet Dillon Coleman, for all his drive and patience, never drove one over the fence until his sophomore year, when he smoked a line drive 330 feet down the right field line and into a pond.
And Jeff wasn’t able to see it.
My Dad was actually in a meeting. I called him later and told him I hit one into the pond. “Where’s the pond?” he said.
“Then he started freaking out, and goes no you didn’t. No you didn’t!’ My mom took a picture of him with a look on his face like he couldn’t believe it.”
Even Dillon couldn’t believe it. “I hit the bottom of the fence in high school. Another time we played at a field with no fence and I got a stand-up triple…I never thought in my life I’d hit one, and then to hit two…”
Jeff was there for the next one. Dillon crushed a pitch 360 feet over the right-center field fence. “I could see my dad losing his mind on the sidelines, hugging some of the pitchers in the bullpen, running up and down the sidelines, just going crazy.”
Later that week, he hit another home run, his third in eight days, and the national news came calling about Dillon Coleman’s sudden power surge. One can imagine the satisfaction of both father and son after all the hours, all the obstacles.
But during his junior year, his batting average dipped below .200. With no homers. “I was so confused. I just had the story done about me…I had to remember all I’d been through and couldn’t get down on myself.”
He rebounded to bat .339 his senior year with seven steals and a perfect fielding percentage, capping the campaign with an All-Conference Honorable Mention. “You know how many extra-base hits I had this year? Zero. So my dad told me this year, I don’t need to see any home runs.’ I worked on hitting the ball to all fields.”
He also continues to make new fans. Jeff got Dillon in touch with a father in Louisiana whose two-year old is facing the same challenges Dillon once did. “My dad invited them up and they actually came to my Senior Day game. To have an impact on little kids dealing with the same thing is such a blessing.” He also serves as an inspiration to other young congenital amputees through the Helping Hands Foundation.
Dillon graduated from Gordon last spring and is pursuing a career in graphic design. “My Dad said art was not an easy major, that I’d have to work very hard to make my way in the world with an art degree. I wanted to make computers a focus to make my degree relevant.” He continues to approach life with a unique focus and drive, buoyed by the lessons of family and faith. Many years ago his parents taught him Ecclesiastes 9:10, and he has carried that message with him: whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. “It says hand’ and not hands.’ I never really felt weak when I thought of that.”
Images of Dillon Coleman courtesy of Gordon College.