By Nicholas Filipas
First baseman Ryon Healy stepped up to the plate for his first at bat on a crisp Saturday night in mid-April, and the Ducks were down a run in the bottom of the first inning against Pac-12 rival UCLA at PK Park in a three-game weekend series.
Healy, 21, brings his bat up over his six-foot five-inch, 227-pound frame and stares down Bruins pitcher Adam Plutko. While Healy’s goal is to get Oregon on base with two outs, Plutko wants to send Healy back to the dugout. Healy digs his green-and-yellow Nike cleats into the soft dirt, barely bending his knees as he takes the first pitch: a low fastball just outside the batting box for ball one. The junior right-handed batter is having a solid year for the Ducks and leads his team in batting, slugging percentage, runs, hits and home runs.
“When I’m up to hit I don’t hear anything, I am locked in and focused on what is right in front of me,” said Healy, “When I’m on defense, I have more time to space out and glance into the stands. I have my time in-between pitches to wonder off somewhere and soak in on how special this whole experience really is. Then I have to lock back in for the next pitch.”
Becoming a baseball player was seemingly set in stone after he was born into an athletic and goal-driven family in West Hills, California, a district of Los Angeles. His father, Pat, played baseball in high school and later went to coach both baseball and softball. His mother, Laurie, was the starting pitcher for the University of South Florida softball team. His oldest sister, Kaitlin, was a starting pitcher at the University of San Diego. And the youngest, Karlie, has ventured away from softball and into cheer for her middle school. He says his parents and siblings have been his biggest fans and are the people he admires the most.
“My entire family is very competitive with everything we do, whether it was a card game or a pickup basketball game,” Healy said, “We always wanted to challenge each other because that’s what we enjoyed. I think this mentality has helped mold me into the competitor I am today. Whether I am on or off the field, I want to win in everything I do.”
Healy started playing baseball at a very young age and also played youth hockey, which he says taught him good footwork skills while on defense. His ability to leap, stretch and make quick turns on a dime make him valuable at first base. He played on the Crespi High School varsity team in Encino, Calif., and won Player of the Year while leading his team to the championship in 2009. In his college career, he has played two seasons at Oregon and spent the summer in 2012 playing in Cape Cod, Mass., on the Brewster Whitecaps.
While he could’ve played baseball closer to home in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Healy committed to the University of Oregon because he favored the coaching staff and athletic facility Oregon had to offer. But being away from home from his tight-knit family has been a challenge.
“Obviously I miss my family very much, but they get to come up and see me play a lot, it’s amazing having them as my support system no matter how far away they are.”
Back at PK Park, Healy swings too hard on the next pitch and is called for his first strike. On a 3-2 count, Healy works Plutko into walking him on ball four and jogs onto first base. The next Oregon batter smacks a fastball deep into midfield but is easily caught, ending the inning and stranding Healy as he takes off his helmet and runs his fingers through his flattened brown hair while trotting back to the dugout.
The Bruins’ sharp pitching kept Healy and the Ducks bats quiet, barely letting Oregon advance a runner anywhere close to scoring position and UCLA won 1-0 to secure their second straight win over Oregon.
“The UCLA pitchers did a great job throwing strikes and attacking the zone,” said Healy, “They kept us off balance the first two games and didn’t allow us to get off the best swings. The only thing we can do is handle each game one at a time as it comes, the worst thing we could do is look towards Omaha,” said Healy, “We need to handle each day as it comes and continue to get better.”
Nights like the one back in April may have been tough, but Healy’s focused mindset can be attributed to how last season ended.
The Ducks were on the verge of advancing to the College World Series last season as they hosted the Super Regional’s against Kent State at PK Park, but an unfortunate dropped fly ball with the game tied in the ninth and allowed the Golden Eagles to score a run and shatter the Ducks’ dreams.
“Obviously that was a heart-breaking loss, but it’s motivation that we use for our everyday lives,” Healy said, “When we are tired or beat, we think back to that feeling of our season ending last year and how we never want that feeling to repeat itself.”
With the 2013 regular season completed and the Ducks achieving a 45-14 record, Healy doesn’t want to think too much into the future, or worry too far into the postseason. He wants to concentrate on taking things one game at a time, hopefully on the way to punching a ticket to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
As for his studies and the thought of turning pro, Healy admits he hasn’t had the time to look that far ahead. He wants to focus on attaining a general social science degree while balancing the commitment of daily training and a hectic road schedule that often forces him to miss class time.
“It’s very difficult, but our coaches set us up for success with the amount of tutoring hours we have put in,” said Healy, “Pretty much my social life takes the back seat because of how important baseball and my school work is.
I have not spent too much time looking ahead, there are too many special things happening here and now. Whatever happens is meant to be and that’s the way I approach each day.”