After a 42-game spring baseball season at Gallaudet University, Billy Bissell might be ready for a brief respite from the game.
But the national pastime is all about being a boy of summer, after all, and for the former three-sport standout at Brewer High School the chance to get right back on the diamond during the warmest part of the year is a long-awaited opportunity — since Bissell has been unable to play baseball each of the last two summers due to identical knee injuries.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Bissell, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound outfielder just named the 2011 North Eastern Athletic Conference West Division Player of the Year. “I’ve got all kinds of opportunities, but right now I’m looking at trying to get into the Cape Cod League.”
After graduating from Brewer High in 2009, Bissell suffered a dislocated knee while playing his first game of the American Legion season. He spent the rest of the summer rehabilitating the injury in anticipation of joining the baseball program at Gallaudet, the suburban Washington, D.C., university. It is recognized as the international leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing students.
But the 20-year-old Bissell — who himself is defined as hard of hearing — had a short-lived first season with the Gallaudet baseball team in 2010, dislocating the same knee during the sixth game of the spring.
“I was going for a triple and as I rounded second base I caught the corner of the base and it happened,” Bissell said. “Right away I knew.
“I was very frustrated. It just made me work 10 times harder in rehab because I didn’t want it to happen again.”
Bissell returned to action during Gallaudet’s 2010 fall season, and this spring emerged as one of the premier players not only on his team, but throughout NCAA Division III baseball.
The Bison’s cleanup hitter was named the NEAC West’s top player after leading the conference in batting average (.438), slugging percentage (.711), on-base percentage (.547), triples (4) and total bases (91) and tying for the NEAC lead in RBI (41), hits (56) and doubles (15).
“Billy has done everything we have expected of him and beyond,” said Gallaudet coach Curtis Pride after Bissell was named Gallaudet’s male athlete of the month for March. “He has played great defense, hit the ball very well and has helped carry the team. Billy has a very bright future.”
Bissell also played a starring role as Gallaudet snapped a 112-year school record for victories in a season, with its 18-24 record earning the Bison a berth the NEAC playoffs during its first season in that conference.
And while an 18-24 mark may not seem like a big deal, that’s compared to a 4-34 mark just one year ago.
“It was great just to get back on the field and work with the guys,” said Bissell, who also occasionally pitches for Gallaudet. “For us to go from four wins last year to 18 wins this year, we improved a lot and the team chemistry improved a lot.
“Pretty much everyone on the team was new. We had four or five players who came back, but everyone else was new.”
Bissell credits much of Gallaudet’s success to Pride, the team’s third-year head coach who in 1996 with the Detroit Tigers became the first deaf player to start regularly in the modern history of major league baseball.
“He’s been a big role model for me as a player who made it to the major leagues,” said Bissell. “He brings instant credibility with him. And as far as the future goes for me, it’s great because he’s been there and he’s got so many connections.”
Those connections already have paid off in at least one way beyond the confines of the Gallaudet clubhouse. Last year Pride, Bissell and the rest of the team were invited to the White House when President Obama hosted a ceremony honoring the New York Yankees for their 2009 World Series championship — an easy invitation for the team to accept, especially since the Yankees are Bissell’s favorite team and one of six organizations Pride played for during his 11-year major league career.
Bissell also hopes to use those connections to parlay college success into a professional career one day, a dream bolstered during Gallaudet’s spring trip to Florida in March by some unsolicited feedback from several professional scouts.
“I was very surprised,” Bissell said of informal conversations he had with representatives from the Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians. “They just told me they thought I was a good player, a five-tool player, and that I just need to keep improving and stay healthy.”
In the meantime, he’s devoted to working on his game this summer — perhaps in the Cape Cod Baseball League, where Pride will be an assistant coach for the Wareham Gateman.
Bissell will attend a league tryout May 30, with the nation’s premier collegiate summer league set to begin its 114th season in early June.
He’s also focused on helping Gallaudet’s baseball program continue to improve, and excited about a new complex about to be built on campus that includes an artificial-turf diamond.
“We’ve got just about everybody coming back next year,” he said. “We got a lot better this year, and we can get a lot better next year.”
And he’s growing more accustomed to living at Gallaudet as a hard-of-hearing young adult.
“So far it’s been great here, especially the baseball program,” Bissell said. “I never really knew sign language before I got here, but when I first came for the jump-start program [before freshman-year classes began] I had to learn to sign. That’s helped me a lot, and most of the players on the team are deaf, so I have to be able to sign with them, too.
“It’s been a good fit.”