The Mirror of Baseball and Life: The Path of Bren Spillane

May 30, 2018 9:47 PM
Dan Napper

Baseball and life mirror one another absurdly well. Baseball, like life, is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows. More often than not, as a hitter, the 0-4 days filled with three strikeouts arrive more than the game winning Joe Carter type homeruns.

The true test with baseball is the same as life: how well do you bounce back?

How do you press the reset button the day after grounding into a double play with the bases loaded and one out to end the game with your team down by one?  How do you stay committed to the game when life and the game present roadblock after roadblock that begins to derail every opportunity in front of you?

If you are Bren Spillane, a junior at the University of Illinois, you simply put your head down and keep working harder and harder.  You step taller and taller to walk over the roadblock placed in front of you. Bren Spillane is the only Division 1 player in history to slug over .900 in the BBCOR era.

It is hard for many of us to put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk the proverbial mile to understand what they have been through.  But, when you realize the road that this young man has walked recently you cannot help but be excited to see the season he has put together this year.

He was the Big Ten regular season Triple Crown winner hitting .407, smashing 22 homeruns, and knocking in 57 RBI.  Those numbers alone were enough to earn him Big Ten player of the year honors, but when you throw in the fact that he also led the Big Ten in slugging (.944), OBP (.512), OPS (1.456) and total bases (153) you realize the season the unmatched offensive production Bren has produced this season.  Simply put, his numbers are impressive to say the least.  He was midseason player of the year winner for both and Perfect Game/Rawlings and the first player in conference history to win Big Ten player of the week in three straight weeks.

But, just like baseball, life presents the highs and the lows that go with those gaudy offensive numbers.  What if I told you this was Bren’s first true full season in almost four years?  That the roadblocks that life presents has kept him front showcasing his true abilities in the game he loves.

So where does the story begin?  All the way back to Bren’s junior year in Wheeling, Illinois when the roadblocks truly started to present in his life.  Junior year just before the Silver and Black Series Bren tears the UCL in his elbow and requires Tommy John surgery effectively ending his season.  He is still able to hit and has a good season at the plate, but does not make the Area Code team due to his injury.  But physical pain is only one way that baseball and life mirror one another.  Shortly before the tournament began Bren lost his father.  As a young man in the midst of trying to enjoy high school, let alone earn a spot on a college roster, but just being a teenager, there are few moments in life that could derail everything worse than the loss of a loved one, more importantly a parent.  Yet Bren persevered and continued to work despite the setbacks that had been placed in front of him.

Senior year of high school sees his first concussion place yet another roadblock in his way.  Freshman year at Illinois brings on a badly sprained ankle and then sophomore year his second concussion that puts yet another season on hold.

By this point the theme is rather clear.  Bren has done more metaphorically than strike out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and his team down by one.  More than that, life has thrown him curveball after curveball and yet all he has done is continue to hone his craft and not let the difficulties of life stop him from playing the game he loves.  Baseball metaphors aside there is a great deal people of all ages can learn from Bren Spillane.

When you speak to the young man himself he is quietly humble.  He realizes what his numbers are this season, but will turn the focus to his team in an instant, and despite several attempts by me to discuss his success during our interview he always brought it back to the culture at Illinois.  As he said; “it’s a special place and it makes it easy to come to the park when you have thirty five guys who all want to work as hard as possible to get the win, it makes it fun to play the game.

Bren Spillane was the 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year, Big Ten regular season triple crown winner(.407, 22 HR, & 57 RBIs), and a unanimous All-Big Ten first team selection.After all the difficult moments in life Bren puts the rest of it into perspective very well.  “0 for 4 is okay, you’ll get another chance.”  When you realize what Bren has faced, you realize how accurate and mature his viewpoint is.  Simply put, he is right, there is no getting around that.  After Tommy John surgery took away his high school junior season he comments that “sitting out, and not being able to play, you learn to cherish baseball.”

My dad passing played a significant role, it helps you realize that there is more to life, that the little moments mean so much more.

When all is said and done this moment is the most impressive to put in perspective.  Injuries heal, tendons and muscles reconnect, bones can be reset, bruises will fade.  But, emotional loss and pain can linger and cause people to lose focus on their goals. Bren Spillane has had more than enough of these moments get in the way and a lesser person might have let them stop them from achieving their goals.  Bren has simply stayed focused and worked to get to where he is today.  “My mom is the reason I am where I am today.  She has been amazingly supportive whether I wanted her to be or not.”  Moms everywhere can agree that trying to get a teenage boy, let alone your own son, to open up is an almost impossible task.  Throw in such a huge life altering moment and it is wonderful to hear a young man speak of the impact his mother in such a positive way.

My high school coach, Tom Barnard from Athletic Barn, was there for me through thick and thin.”

No one gets through life unscathed, but one element many of us struggle to learn is that we need to lean on people at times.  Perhaps Bren’s maturity is the reason for his success this season.  The roadblocks of life have taught him how to handle the difficult moments of the game.  Perspective is an amazing teacher when you have walked the path that Bren Spillane has walked.Bren Spillane was the first player in Big Ten history to win three straight Big Ten Player of the Week awards (3/19-4/2/18).

Perhaps that is the reason why he is so calm when talk of the draft comes around.  Less than a week away on June 4th there is talk that Bren has worked his way into the early rounds of the draft, but when you speak to the player himself his focus is entirely on his team at Illinois saying, “It will happen when it happens and right now I just want to enjoy my season with my teammates.”

Once again he moves the focus back to his team.  Because that is the young man that is Bren Spillane.  He has been through enough to know that there are bigger moments in life than keeping focus on himself and the MLB draft.  He has had enough of them to help him realize what is truly important in life and as he himself said, the “little moments” are what matter. In the end baseball still is just a game and every other part of life will eventually come to the forefront.  When you have faced as much as Bren has you tend to live in the moment, stay grounded, and enjoy the time you have with the people who are in your life now.  If you want proof for these words just look at the way Bren reacted when he hit an absolute bomb in the Big Ten tournament against Indiana to tie the game.  His true reaction does not arrive until he gets to his teammates after stepping on homeplate.  He is enjoying the moment with his teammates because Bren Spillane knows all too well that moments in this game, as with life, can be fleeting.  

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