Undefeated

Undefeated

Daniel Cloy, College of Charleston

We all think we know what success and failure look like. Surely, in a culture obsessed with winning, there could be no debate on that. The difference between triumph and defeat is like night and day, black and white, yes and no. Right?

Not exactly. Senior Daniel Cloy, a business major with dreams of playing baseball, proves that sometimes down is up – and that victory comes in many different forms.

by Mark Berry
Photography by Terry Manier

He was called into the visiting dugout. He knew it was coming, but he wanted to hear it straight from him. To look him directly in the eye, man to man, and find out why.

Standing there, almost holding his breath, he could feel the disappointment mounting in his gut. A sensation that moved upward, both somehow slowly and quickly in that moment. His throat tightened a little as he heard the words that he desperately didn’t want to hear: “I’m sorry, Daniel, but we don’t have a spot for you.”

Like hearing the umpire make the wrong call to lose the game for you, he found his disappointment turn immediately into anger. A thousand thoughts screamed at him at once, as if echoing throughout the dugout: Why? What more could I’ve done? All that work, all that time. Take another look, Coach.

Daniel Cloy’s face was flush with emotion. He had never been good at hiding his feelings. But this wasn’t a time for outbursts. It wouldn’t do any good anyway, he knew.

Daniel Cloy, College of Charleston

Cloy cleared his throat, could feel the mixture of emotions almost gagging him. Through pursed lips, his voice quiet, even a little shaky, he gathered himself and then asked why.

Matt Heath, the Cougars pitching coach, hated this part of the job – telling passionate players that they aren’t quite good enough to play. Because at his core, Heath’s not a dream killer. His job is to help guys get better and achieve their dreams. And here’s a kid standing in front of him that represents everything that is right with sports. A kid that he knows is truly special and that he wishes could be a part of the program.

In that tense moment, Cloy could not have known how much the Cougars coaching staff struggled with their decision to cut him. Ultimately, Heath and Head Coach Monte Lee ’00 reasoned that they had to take the best athletes, period: the ones who would be able to contribute on the field, to help their top-25 program compete for another Southern Conference title and NCAA Tournament berth. Plus, going into that season of 2012, they had one of the strongest pitching staffs in the school’s history, and Cloy, a junior right-hander who, at his best, touches 80 mph, didn’t quite have the “stuff” – either the velocity or different release point – that makes an elite pitcher in Division I baseball. And if you’re a walk-on trying to make the Cougars, you better bring some elite talent.

Cloy listened intently, Heath’s explanations whirring in his head. He heard the critique, the why nots. Fortunately, the praise, for which Heath kept coming back to, over and over again, did not fall on deaf ears.

When Cloy knew Heath was done and the decision irreversible, he thanked him for giving him a chance, reached out his right hand, gave Heath a firm grip and said in a voice unwavering and strong with determination: “I’ll see you next year, Coach.”

Better Than Rudy

OK, there’s something special about Daniel Cloy. He’s not your usual, run-of-the-mill athlete. Actually, he’s the furthest thing from it. If you’ve seen him pitch, you’d remember it. You’d talk about it. You’d think about him and might even reconsider your own approach to things, to life.

In fact, Cloy’s senior year at Riverside High in 2009 is the type of fodder that Hollywood scriptwriters make blockbusters out of. For decades, Riverside has been a baseball powerhouse, a perennial contender for state championships. The entire town of Greer, S.C., talks with pride of its baseball team, and the Riverside Warriors carry themselves with a little bit of swagger knowing that they’re part of a great tradition – a dynasty really, according to locals. These players’ names will live on in the springtime conversations throughout Greer, around the oldtimers’ table at the Clock Restaurant, in the break rooms at the BMW plant – wherever high school baseball is being discussed.

For two years, Cloy pitched on the junior varsity team. He had success, notching several wins over two seasons and leading the squad in E.R.A. his freshman year, while logging the second-most number of innings.

Baseball coaches Chris Bates and Mark Kish liked what they saw in him. He worked hard and never wavered in his effort.

“Daniel was a constant reminder to us of what’s possible,” says Kish. “Just the idea of a young man like that, with his everyday challenges, was great for our players to see and be around.”

One of those everyday challenges was balancing a glove on his left forearm and sliding his right hand into it after he pitched the ball. A feat he had perfected after years of practice throwing and catching a tennis ball against the concrete wall in his driveway.

You see, Cloy was born without a left hand.

Daniel Cloy, College of Charleston

“The beautiful thing about Daniel is,” says Kish, “he never looked at himself differently, not as someone disabled. His attitude was always ‘there’s nothing wrong with me.’ He was a joy to have on our team.”

Part of that joy stemmed from Cloy’s example. He loved everything about baseball, and was willing to do whatever, whenever for the team. Never did he complain about foul ball duty or picking up after the game. Cloy, intent on absorbing everything he could from coaches and other players, was one of the first at practice and one of the last to leave.

“His attitude never changed,” Bates recalls, “whether it was running, lifting, doing drills. As coaches, we had to be the ones to tell Daniel to ease up. And that attitude rubbed off on everyone around him.”

While Cloy contributed much to team chemistry once he made the varsity team his junior year, his contributions on the field were less noteworthy. He had been limited by a knee injury part of his junior year, and his senior year had only seen him pitch in a couple of relief opportunities. But for Senior Night, the team’s last home game in April 2009, Kish made the decision to have Cloy start the game.

“Daniel deserved it,” Kish says. “He worked his butt off, and he earned that start.”

The evening of the game, after all the seniors and their families had been recognized, as he walked out to the mound, the music blaring over the loudspeakers took a backseat to the song in his head. He could hear the opening guitar riff from “Lose Yourself,” the beat building and thumping along to his own heartbeat as Emimem urged, as if directly to him: “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip.”

Cloy was not going to let it slip. Not now. Not ever. His first pitch was a four-seam fastball on the outside corner of the plate – a strike. And from then on, the game unfolded as if by design. The entire team rallied around Cloy, hitting three home runs and making spectacular defensive plays behind him. By the end of the game, Cloy had pitched a complete-game, two-hit shutout. Everyone there knew something special had just occurred, and when the local media caught wind of it, Cloy found himself the subject of a Greenville News article and a local TV report.

As he told those reporters over the following days, regarding his career night and his disability, “use the parts that you have to make up for the parts you lack.”

It was an amazing moment. An emotional night for the coaches, the team, the fans, the town and especially Cloy’s family. However, for Cloy’s father, who was the announcer for that game, somehow it still paled slightly in comparison to one of his son’s earlier achievements on the diamond.

For Steve Cloy, the true movie moment came when Daniel was playing Little League baseball. Earlier, as part of his physical therapy, a 3-year-old Daniel would throw a tennis ball against the wall, inside or outside, in order to strengthen his upper body to compensate for the missing left hand. After an incident of a shattered glass cabinet door, his parents realized that Daniel possessed not only a strong right arm, but some pretty decent hand-eye coordination as well. So, naturally, the father turned him onto his favorite sport: baseball.

Baseball became everything to Daniel. No matter what age he was, the sights, sounds and smells of the ballpark spoke to him in an intimate way. The muffled clap of rawhide striking leather, the warm fragrance of fresh-cut grass, the cheering crowd – this was his sanctuary, his natural place in the world, always reminding him: Between these chalk lines, there is nothing different about me.

As a young boy, before going to bed, he read baseball stories with his father, and Daniel would, without fail, ask if he might hit a home run someday. It was the kind of question that could break a heart, but Steve Cloy never gave in to that negative thinking and would simply tell Daniel, time and time again, “Yes, if you keep working hard, just maybe, you’ll hit one out.”

It was Daniel’s last Little League game, his last at bat. Steve Cloy sat in the stands, saying a prayer under his breath for his son to realize this one dream. As if on cue, the wind started blowing out. And just like that, Daniel swung one-handed and hit the ball out of the park. The small crowd erupted; parents of both teams, even the umpire, wiped tears from their eyes and watched in awe as Daniel, getting high-fives from the players in the field, made his way around the bases.

The clapping, whistling and cheers from his teammates and onlookers enveloped the field like a warm blanket – masking the squeaks in Daniel’s proud strides.

Is That It?

Steve and Lynn Cloy stared at the fuzzy image of the ultrasound, which looked more like the static from a broken, old, black-and-white television set than what was supposed to be the image of their son. At that time, Daniel was not quite in the right position for his first photo op, so the image they saw was looking directly down on the crown of his head, with one arm reaching up, as if waving to his soon-to-be parents.

Steve smiled to Lynn and said, “Well, at least we know he has one good arm.”

Everyone in the room laughed.

Months later, because Daniel was in the breech position, the doctors performed a Caesarean section to deliver him. As soon as he was born, before either Steve or Lynn laid eyes on him, the doctors took him from the room. Steve stayed by Lynn’s side, anxious to see his wife recover, but even more anxious to meet his son.

A little while later, the doctors called Steve out of the room. As a first-time father, he didn’t think it strange that the nurse had not yet returned with his son. He didn’t really know how much time had passed in the operating room. It was all so surreal. He just assumed everything was routine. Once out in the hall, however, he could tell immediately that something was not quite right – at least gauging by the doctors’ expressions.

Daniel Cloy, College of Charleston

They informed him that Daniel had been born without a left hand. And waiting a second for that shock to sink in, they then told Steve that his son was born without feet.

Unfazed, Steve responded, “Is that it?”

If the doctors were expecting some sort of emotional breakdown, they did not understand the Cloy disposition. Once they had reassured him that other than the limb deficiency, everything else was normal about Daniel, Steve asked them to allow him to talk with his wife first. Steve, alone in the operating room with his wife, explained the situation to Lynn, who looked into Steve’s eyes and said calmly, “Is that it? Bring Daniel to me.”

Next, the Cloys, like parents of any disabled child, began an intense and, at times, overwhelming research process. While the doctors wanted to figure out cause, the Cloys were all about effect: How will Daniel walk? How will he function with one arm? How can we best help him?

Several doctors and prosthetic experts suggested amputating part of Daniel’s left ankle in order to make his legs equal lengths and easier for standard prosthetics. But the Cloys were hesitant. As Lynn believed, “we shouldn’t take anything away from what Daniel’s been given to make it easy on someone else.”

After much searching, they found clinical prosthetist James Hughes at AP&O in Atlanta, who fitted 1-year-old Daniel with his first pair of prosthetic legs. And from then on, as the years came and went, Daniel was doing everything a “normal” boy was doing: walking, running, riding a bike, skiing and playing sports, from soccer to football. But baseball would forever be his true love and perhaps the greatest challenge to his disability.

“He’s always torn up everything,” laughs Hughes, who has driven, more times than he can remember, to rest stops along the Interstate to meet Daniel and make repairs to his legs so that he would be ready for his next game. “Because Daniel’s always pushed the envelope to compete against two-legged people, he’s got a durability issue with his legs.”

And unfortunately for Cloy, baseball is a game of legs.

Going After It Again

When Cloy showed up at last fall’s open tryouts for the baseball team, the senior business major was a man transformed. Both figuratively and literally. For a year, he had worked tirelessly to shed weight and to strengthen his throwing motion, hoping to add a little more sizzle and pop to his pitches in order to impress the College’s coaches.

It was a struggle. A struggle, however, that he craved. Because if nothing else, Cloy loves a good fight. Well, he’d better – he’s been fighting nonstop since he could walk on his prosthetic legs at 14 months old.

As his mother says, with a slight sigh in her voice, “When Daniel gets his mind set on something, he doesn’t listen to reason.”

Daniel Cloy, College of Charleston

You know why? Simple. Reason, in Cloy’s mind, can make you lazy. It can make you soft and complacent. Reason tells you it’s OK to stay in bed past 5 a.m. and not get up to work out. Reason whispers to you that you don’t need to lift weights like everyone else, reminding you, like you need reminding, that you have only one arm. Reason tells you that you don’t need to push yourself to compete against able-bodied athletes. Reason gives you all of the excuses in the world why you can’t, why you shouldn’t. That’s why Cloy has little need for Reason.

Before transferring to the College, Cloy was a freshman hopeful at Anderson University. Unfortunately for his baseball dreams there, he was hurt again – again being the operative word. Cloy’s knees take a considerable beating against his prosthetics casings, and he has suffered more than 15 knee dislocations to date. At that time, he was also diagnosed with a rare shoulder condition above his right arm, which required surgery.

Following the surgery, he was in a sling and a wheelchair. It was difficult, to say the least – his one good arm unusable and a bum knee limiting his mobility. And during those months, his weight ballooned to 250. He may have felt heavy, at times both in spirit and body, but he was never helpless – and nowhere near hopeless.

“Sitting in that wheelchair,” Cloy recalls, his voice rising, “I knew I needed to fight – to fight even harder than I ever had. I thought about laying the bricks to my foundation, if you will. What’s the smallest thing I can do to start back?

He couldn’t move his leg, but he could move his quadriceps. So, in that wheelchair, he would flex his quads, slowly rebuilding the strength in each leg.

Cloy, who is a devotee to making lists, made yet another one: his Recovery List. Step one: Get the leg better. Step two: Get the arm better. Step three: Lose the weight. Step four: Get back to baseball.

Assiduously, he worked his way back, step by painful step. By the time he tried out for the College his junior year, he had slimmed down 50 pounds and was ready to play. In Cloy’s mind, his goal was ultimately derailed by illness. He had made it several weeks into tryouts, was throwing strikes and getting people out, when, at the worst time possible, he started feeling sick.

The night before he was to pitch in a live scrimmage, he took Sudafed to combat the rising fever, chills and sore throat he had been feeling for several days. That next afternoon, however, when he took the mound, he was a little disoriented and it felt like he was swallowing needles. But he wasn’t going to let anything keep him from his dream. He tried to channel his inner Michael Jordan, who famously played through the flu in the 1997 NBA finals. If he could do it, I can do it, he kept telling himself.

Unlike Mike – and as might be expected of any ordinary person in that situation – Cloy did not have his best stuff. He gave up a walk and a hit; then a soft-hit ball just scuffed the foul line, scoring the two runners. Cloy eventually finished the inning and came off the field with a look of devastation. What the coaches and other players saw as frustration at a less-than-stellar performance was actually a completely fatigued player dealing with a 102-degree fever and strep throat. Ever the stoic ballplayer, Cloy told no one he was sick.

“It’s always been that outing that’s gotten to me,” Cloy reflects. “I wish I could have that one back.”

But his senior-year tryout, Cloy believed, would be different. After a summer of weight training and conditioning – on top of taking three summer courses and working days at a Cadillac dealership outside of Spartanburg – Cloy looked the athlete transformed. Actually, he looked like a completely different person – his upper body framed in greater muscle.

And the coaches – a little surprised, frankly, to see him back – saw the change immediately: Now, Daniel, let’s see what you can do.

This is where Hollywood and real life diverge. The story should be that Cloy clocked in at 90 mph and is carried off the field on the shoulders of his new teammates, helping lead them to another SoCon title and an appearance in the College World Series. But life rarely works out that way.

“He was the same player the second time out,” Coach Heath says. “Yes, he was in way better shape – you could clearly see that – but his game had not changed. For a pitcher, you really need both legs because it provides so much of the force, the power.”

Cloy, who had stayed with the team through five weeks his first go-around, was cut early this second time. The coaches felt there was no need to string him along. Both Lee and Heath, however, were still amazed by Cloy’s commitment and ability despite his physical limitations.

“We treated him like any other baseball player,” says Lee. “I wanted to let our guys see how hard he competed, how hard he worked – and let it be an inspiration to them. Daniel proves that if you’re willing to sacrifice and work hard, you can do incredible things.”

Daniel Cloy, College of Charleston

“A few years ago, Cloy would have probably made this team,” Heath explains, “when we could keep 40 to 45 guys. But now, with the NCAA limit of 35 roster spots, we only have room for eight walk-ons. That being said, Daniel flat-out inspired us. His sheer focus and his toughness are amazing.”

The coaches knew that those traits, that inner fire that burns so brightly in Cloy, are rare. After both cuts, they offered Cloy the team manager position – a chance to be a part of the baseball program and to be that everyday inspiration to the team.

But Cloy said no. He appreciated the gesture, even considered it a high honor, but he was either a player or he wasn’t. It was better to just walk away.

The Natural

Don’t feel sorry for Daniel Cloy. He understands all too well baseball’s reputation as a hard game for hard men. In fact, that’s what he loves about it. It is hard. Very hard.

Despite being cut twice by the College, Cloy still harbors dreams of playing ball – perhaps going to graduate school and walking on its Division II/III team or maybe landing a tryout with the Charleston RiverDogs (a minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees). But Cloy, surprisingly, is not single-minded in his dreaming. Far from it.

Health education professor Tim Scheett saw his passion for learning the first day of class, when Cloy walked in and took the front row, center seat. “Students that sit there,” Scheett explains, “they are into it. I knew right away that this kid is going to show up 10 minutes before class and work hard. In fact, his example made everyone in the class better.”

According to Dave Morgan, an adjunct faculty member in the School of Business and local business executive, Cloy was one of the best students he’s ever had. “Daniel came prepared and was engaged in the subject. He is one to ask a lot of questions, thoughtful questions. I could see that his disability is actually a benefit to his spirit. He’s bright and inquisitive, and he challenged me to be a better professor.”

For Cloy, life is too precious, too interesting to let it pass him by. He wants to do many different things: start his own business in Greenville, S.C., and be a pillar of that rising city; build and patent his own prosthetics attachments for disabled athletes; learn HTML coding to take advantage of the booming digital economy.

“How much better can you make yourself as a person?” Cloy asks himself every day. “I see people do enough just to get by. I’m not going to let myself just get by. Whether baseball, school, anything I do – I won’t regret a thing on my death bed.”

No, Daniel Cloy will surely not be burdened by the what-ifs of life. Each time he puts his feet on in the morning, ties his shoes with his one hand and heads out the door to face – no, attack – the day, he is living proof that there is really no ceiling to a person’s potential. Not when you’re willing to put your full energy into it, to leave doubt and even reason behind. Because he knows, perhaps better than anyone, that when you lose yourself, truly lose yourself in your passion, you will always come out winning.