By Staff Sgt. Benjamin Crane, State Public Affairs Office
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Being a baseball player or being a Soldier is something a lot of kids want to be when they get older. Few get the opportunity to fulfill both.
But for one Kentucky Guardsman, that chance came around this year and he actually owes it to COVID-19 in fact.
1st Lt. Bryan Fuller, the assistant S2 (Intelligence, security, and information operations) for the 138 Field Artillery Brigade and community president of first Southern National Bank (on the civilian side) is also a baseball player. In early 2020 Fuller found out about the opportunity to play baseball and compete again through an old college friend of his from Campbellsville University where he played baseball for 4 years as a relief pitcher.
“She was as they say, ‘in the know’ with this new ‘league’ that they were starting it because of COVID and the shutdown of Minor League Baseball,” said Fuller.
Due to the pandemic creating and drastic change to the Major League Baseball season, cancelling all the Minor League games, The Lexington Legends had to figure out a way to make baseball happen this year for them.
The idea they came up with was to join in with the Independent League team, Florence Y’alls and create a tournament that involved four teams born out of the two main teams: in Lexington you had the Legends and Las Leyendas (Spanish for Legends), and in Florence they had the Y’alls and Freedom, and called the tournament, “Battle of the Bourbon Trail” with games being played between the four teams Thursdays through Sundays for seven weeks from July to September.
“This was all brand new due to the (COVID) sanctions and the Minor League Baseball season being cancelled,” said Andy Shea, President and CEO of the Lexington Legends. “The part that was truly unique for us was fielding a roster because we’ve never necessarily done that being an affiliate of the Houston Astros for 12 years and the Kansas City Royals for 8 years.”
To get players for the teams, they had open tryouts, as well as picking up former professional baseball players such as former Cincinnati Red, Brandon Phillips, and former Boston Red Sox pitcher and Lexington native, Robbie Ross.
With the leagues being brand new and the time frame so short, upper management wanted to get the local community involved so it was important that the players also have a tie back to the area as well.
“I had about three weeks to put together a roster here, so it was real fun seeing how many players who were from Kentucky we could get on a roster,” said Shea. “A friend of mine said, ‘hey I know this guy who was really good and he pitched at Campbellsville, would you be interested’, and I was like ‘heck yes!’; so without even getting to know Bryan that well, he checked a lot of boxes; a good college pitcher, which you always need, plus going to Campbellsville (University); it was a lot of fun, and he pitched great and I think it was absolutely perfect from a community standpoint a well.”
Being a local guy, along with his skill set, really helped Fuller be a perfect fit.
“When Natasha told me about this league that's up and coming, she knew that I played baseball in college, and though it might be a good fit for me,” said Fuller. “I had also been playing baseball in Lexington on one of the adult baseball leagues so she knew that I had also been throwing in the last year. She messaged me on Facebook Messenger and said I need to go try out for this league. But I kind of laughed it off like, ‘I'm 33 years old. I've haven’t played in 10 years except for an adult baseball league in Lexington.’ And these guys are young professional baseball players. I just thought it was kind of funny, but told her she could tell them I wasn’t going to try out but to tell them if they need a relief pitcher that can play on the weekends for you, I might be interested. The next day I get a call from one of the coaches, saying, yeah. We'd like to have you on the team as a relief pitcher.”
Getting the chance to be on the mound again and facing top notch hitting made him feel like the college kid again who pitched 21 innings in 24 hours. Which brought him a little attention from ESPN at the time.
-Link to ESPN feature-
The Legends management was very accommodating and was willing to work around Fuller’s schedule and military commitments. He even had a two-week annual training event that he was required to attend during the seven-week season.
“They really moved all obstacles for me to play said Fuller. “Since there were practice requirements, if game time was at 5pm, I had to show up and be sure I was ready to play. They trusted us to act professionally. I would make sure to get there early like the other players and warm up with everyone get to know everybody and sign autographs for the fans.”
Fuller ended up pitching in 6 games, getting one win, while throwing nine innings, striking out 12 batters and allowed only three earned runs to give him an earned run average of 3.0. He also walked three batters, and gave up five hits, four for singles and one double.
Not a bad stat line for a guy who stands at just under six foot and throws in the range of 84-88 miles per hour.
During his time with the team, Fuller was able to rack up a lot of fun memories but his favorite memory was when he was able to pick of a runner at second with former Red Brandon Phillips.
“There are two moments that stood out to me in my experience, number one was when I came into the game with runners on second and first base, In my first at-bat I faced and with my second baseman being Brandon Phillips, the runner on second was bouncing around quite a bit trying to throw me off. Brandon, being the pro he was never left the bag.”
“He stood there at second base- he was talking to the runner-and I was hearing all of it, as I was looking back at them and then looking at the catcher and back again. As I look back at the runner that time, he took a couple big hops, and I just stepped off real quick and threw it to Brandon, who tagged him out. I got to get a pick off with Brandon Phillips,” Fuller exclaimed.
His second highlight was when he was able to strike out the side, all three batters he faced.
“It was pretty big for me, a guy like me 10 years removed from playing regularly, not drafted, no pro experience. I’m just this is side arm soft throwing right handed pitcher, so to do that, against that level of competition was the second highlight,” he added.
Going into the experience, Bryan was concerned that he would be sacrificing even more time away from his family. But he was able to spend almost every game with his wife, Jessica, and two sons, Talon and Ace in the stands.
“Overall it was pretty cool stuff and to get to do it in front of my family, my wife, and two little boys, so for them to be at the ballpark and get pictures with me in uniform and watch me play was great.”
Fuller joined the National Guard in 2014 and attributed his love for his country and patriotism as driving factors. He just had to get his wife, to sign off. Originally wanting to go into a ROTC program while at school, sports kept him from doing so. He then was looking onto it again after school, but life got in the way.
“I wanted to join the Guard after graduating, I really looked hard at it, but my wife and I weren't on the same page,” he said. “It took five years to convince her but I got her to talk to my recruiter with me in late 2013, and then I enlisted in February of 2014.”
Fuller added in closing that he was very thankful for his civilian employers support.
“I just want to say thank you to my civilian employer, First Southern, who has been amazing. They offer two weeks paid for military leave each year. It's awesome that they support service members and they're always wanting to hire service members”
Also, he wanted to offer a small word of advice to Soldiers and officers alike.
“It’s important to me to be able to lead as an officer in the military, and lead as community president on the civilian side and lead people, and serve as a servant leader. It is big in both realms, in banking, and in the Guard. I ask, what can I do to help, and that's been my motto, since I was a kid. Success is all about servant leadership.”
Next season, things will be back as they were, but for this servant leading officer, he will take from what he learned during his time with the Legends and use it to make him better the next time he laces up his cleats and steps on the smaller stage for his other Lexington baseball team.