BASEBALL 2004: Pretty Fly for a Shy Guy

Switch-pitcher seeks team glory while avoiding the spotlight

Matt Brunnig doesn’t want you to read this. He didn’t want it written and if being 6’7 didn’t make it impossible, he’d try to hide from any additional spotlight.

Sorry, Matt.

There are athletes who love the notoriety that comes with being a star and there are those who play off the attention they receive as unwanted, but who secretly relish the limelight.

And then there’s Brunnig, as humble as they come, who can’t even begin to find the words to describe himself since he does it so rarely; so he gently taps his fingers on the table, searching for as unassuming a response as he can think of.

“I’ve never really done that before,” he sheepishly admits after a few moments of fruitless mental scanning. “It’s not that interesting a subject.”

It’s not like there’s a dearth of things to talk about. Brunnig can pitch with both arms.

He’s simply the kind of guy—completely averse to any accolades or kudos that would separate him from his teammates—who you’d imagine trying actively to slouch his shoulders and hunch his back to avoid drawing unwanted notice; the same player who tries to minimize his frame off the field and downplay his own talent and successes on it the same way he walks under the ill-designed doorframes that have plagued him his whole life.

Then again, being the son of a chiropractor makes that pretty difficult.

“He’s a humble kid,” says Harvard coach Joe Walsh. “Last year, he got some attention which he didn’t want. You know that USA Weekly newspaper there did a story on him and Matt was like, ‘I haven’t played a game yet here, and I’m getting ink.’ He’s reluctant.”

The hype isn’t without its foundations. Brunnig hurled one-run, three-hit ball over eight innings against Michigan last time out on the mound, dispelling any doubt about that.

But then again, there are other solid right-handers out there who, when they’ve brought their ‘A’ game, can whiz through the Wolverines’ lineup. Plenty of left-handers, too.

“I’ve been decent,” Brunnig says. “I haven’t really done anything spectacular yet.”

Thing is, there are very few who can do it from both sides.

“It’s funny; when we recruited Matt, the story went, we had seen him an inning right-handed in a tournament,” Walsh says. “So we called a scout down in the Orlando area and asked him to go see him and give us some feedback. So he called me up and said, ‘Hey coach, I didn’t see him throwing 88-89 like we thought; he was only throwing 85. But I’m going back to see him tomorrow.’

“And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I saw him throwing 85 left-handed and I loved him left-handed, but I’m going to go back and watch him right-handed.’ We didn’t know that when we first had seen him. You obviously don’t ask that question.”

At the plate, switching around is plenty common. On the rubber? That’s a whole different story.

“Right handed, I’m more of a power pitcher,” Brunnig says. “As of now, I’m a fastball pitcher—fastball, slider, forkball or splitter and a little curve. Left handed, I use more movement…[and] try to spot it a little more.”

That singular quirk, switch-pitching, was never meant to be a ticket to a spot on a Division I roster, nor was it a possibility ever explored in-depth by Brunnig, who first learned to throw with his left hand fresh out of t-ball.

Instead, that trait that draws all the attention—making Brunnig probably want to crumple into a ball more than anything—is a product of efforts to ensure he’d do just the opposite.

Worried about his son’s back and the strain that comes with exerting such force with just one arm, John Brunnig insisted that young Matt learn to throw both ways, guaranteeing balance in the development of the muscles on both his right and left sides.

“Then that’d throw off the spine and everything,” Brunnig says. “So he got me throwing left handed.”

Of course, learning to catch and throw is difficult enough for a child to master, even with his dominant arm making the toss. So relearning the mechanics and motion from the opposite side wasn’t exactly easy.

Having his dad, also a right-hander with no experience hurling with his left, take up the task with him made it seem less daunting.

“I was a switch hitter, and he pitched batting practice to me left handed, so I could hit right-handed,” Brunnig says. “It was hard for him, I think. I really didn’t appreciate that, so I didn’t pay attention to how much time he was putting in.”

With his dad’s instruction and the aid of a football, Brunnig worked on getting down the rhythm, using his ability to throw a spiral as an indicator of his progress.

But despite the modicum of success he’d enjoyed, the novelty of switch-pitching wasn’t attractive enough to keep Brunnig from neglecting his newly-learned dexterity.

“I always pitched more right-handed because I…was never as comfortable with it, so I didn’t put as much time in,” he says. “I threw some in high school, I threw a couple games in little league. And only the last couple of years would I say that I’ve been trying to put equal time into left-handed and right-handed.”

Not that he wasn’t busy attending to other aspects of his childhood way back when.

Home-schooled from kindergarten through high school with his younger brother and four sisters, the easygoing Floridian developed extraordinarily strong bonds with his siblings.

“Up until I really started driving,” Brunnig says, “I probably had the closest relationship to people in my family.”

Capitalizing on both his hometown, Deland, to one side, and acres of unsettled land to the other, Brunnig lived the dream of most young children, with half days typical and afternoons in the sun commonplace.

“You have more opportunities to do other stuff,” Brunnig says. “You don’t have to throw as much time into sitting in the classroom. It’s basically studying at your own pace…I think a lot of the time, especially up through eighth and ninth grade, in the classroom is wasted.”

Without a school as he neared high school age, though, it became increasingly likely that the childhood idyll he had always known would become a thing of the past, if only to be able to continue to play baseball.

But due to the enactment of a new state law allowing home-schooled students to play on private school-affiliated teams or local public high schools, that transition proved unnecessary. Instead, Brunnig donned the uniform of Warner Christian Academy during the three years before college but continued to learn from his own textbooks—with outside aid for Spanish, chemistry and advanced mathematics classes.

Then came Harvard.

“I’m still adjusting to it,” Brunnig says. “It’s been a learning experience getting adjusted to the school process the whole time.”

Things may change, but playing ball and staying slightly aloof never do. No matter what, the comfort level on the mound is the same, the feel of the seams familiar.

If only he could get used to those darn reporters.

—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at mcginn@fas.harvard.edu.,/i>

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