Even before he was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old, Ryland Zaborowski always had a baseball bat in his hands.
Today, he’s one of Miami University baseball’s best players. A 6-foot-6, 235-pound, baseball punishing machine, who's hitting .299 with 11 home runs in 97 at bats this season.
Zaborowski’s dad and his friends are die-hard Los Angeles Angels fans. His parents had season tickets when he was a kid, so since he can remember, he’s been at the ballpark.
“At a very young age, my dad just handed me a bat and put me in an Angels jersey, and going through the days, I just wouldn’t take it off,” Zaborowski said. “I learned how to hit a ball off the tee, and that’s kind of just where it all started.”
He hasn’t stopped loving the game yet.
“Once I learned how to hit when someone was throwing to me, that’s when I kind of realized, ‘Dang. I’m somewhat good at this,” Zaborowski said. “Around the age of 7 or 8 is the earliest I can remember that I just fell in love with the game. You couldn’t take me away from it.”
During his first year in high school, as a 14 year-old, Zaborowski had to get Tommy John Surgery. It’s a procedure common among baseball players who tear their Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL), the main ligament that connects the humerus, the upper arm bone, and the ulna, the forearm bone. The surgeon takes a ligament from elsewhere in your body, usually the hamstring or forearm, and replaces the UCL with it. Recovery takes about a year. It’s common among baseball players, but not so much among 14-year-old baseball players.
It was tough on Zaborowski, especially right after the surgery. Baseball had always been his life, but suddenly he couldn’t play.
“It really hit me that I needed to learn how to become mentally strong and deal with failure,” Zaborowski said. “I had to figure out how to come back stronger. I feel like that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I rebuilt my body and my strength, and it really helped me mentally. I know I’ll be failing a lot more in the future, a lot of stuff is out of my control.”
At a young age, Zaborowski was always in different classes than the “normal” kids at school. He finally moved from California to Arizona when he was a sophomore in high school. When he started school in Arizona, he got put in class with everyone else. He says that if it wasn’t for that, he wouldn’t be playing Division I baseball right now.
Zaborowski remembers one friend he made in class who was also diagnosed with autism..
“I was really good friends with this one kid,” Zaborowski said. “And he didn’t function as well as me, but he was addicted to cars. I would point out a car part to him, like ‘Hey what’s this?’ He would name it on the spot.”
Enjoy what you're reading?
Signup for our newsletter
It’s a point of passion for Zaborowski. He believes everyone should be given a chance to succeed. He believes that everyone has the chance to succeed.
“If your kid’s diagnosed, you can’t just go straight to the negative,” Zaborowski said. “I mean yeah, it might be bad news that they’re on the spectrum when you find out, but if you see something they’re good at, let them pursue that. Maybe they’re great at a sport, or maybe they’re in love with cars. It could be anything. They don’t know where that will take them. It can be their escape from reality.”
Cam LaLiberte, a catcher at the University of Arizona who played baseball with Zaborowski in high school and bonded with him over a love of baseball and Marvel movies, says Zaborowski is as impressive on the field as he is off it.
“He’s a very kind-hearted, determined person,” LaLiberte said. “I don’t think he’d swat a fly. Just the nicest guy. He’s also just so motivated, both in the weight room and on the field. Whatever he sets his mind to, he sees it through.”
Despite his kind attitude, Zaborowski’s autism can cause him issues. He started his college career at Grand Canyon University, and it wasn’t always easy interacting with teammates.
“At Grand Canyon, I wasn’t that open about it at first, so guys didn’t really know how to interact with me,” Zaborowski said. “For example I don’t always catch on with sarcasm that well.”
At Miami, it’s been different.
“Coming to Miami, the first day I was here I was like, ‘Hey guys, my name is Ryland and just to let you know this is the issue I have. So if there’s something I don’t understand or process, this is why,’” Zaborowski said. “As a team, there were no negative reactions … a lot of guys took it to heart, and they’re like ‘OK, you know, if this guy has a rough day, I’m going to be there for him because I actually care.’”
Bailey Montgomery, Miami’s hitting coach, says that there’s a culture of inclusivity on the Miami baseball team. Even when they were recruiting Zaborowski, they were thinking about how the other players would treat him. They knew they had a good group of guys.
“To us, he’s Ryland the teammate,” Montgomery said. “Someone who loves baseball, who’s trying to help us win.”
Earlier this year, Miami’s athletic department held an inclusiveness meeting at Millett Hall. At the end was an open mic for athletes to come down and tell their stories.
“I was just like, ‘Dang, what if I do it,’” Zaborowski said. “And my anxiety was rushing, and my stress was just through the roof, but I went up there and I grabbed the mic.”
Zaborowski doesn’t remember a lot of the home runs he hits. His first collegiate home run, the first thing he remembers from his perspective is rounding second base.
At the mic, he hit a home run.
“And I blacked out,” Zaborowski said. “I don’t remember a thing that I said. I just remember handing the mic back.”
The response has stuck with him.
“And all the athletes got up, people were dapping me up, giving me hugs, just saying, ‘Thank you for telling us that. Now I understand,’” Zaborowski said. “… a lot of athletes who have never met me have come up to me saying, ‘Hey, I respect you for doing this.’ … Just having those people who care about me and appreciate that I went up and shared my story just makes a huge difference. I mean, it gives me confidence as a person, as an athlete, as a baseball player, to continue pursuing playing baseball even more.”
Today, the game is more than just a hobby or even a passion for Ryland.
“Right now I call it an escape from reality type of thing. Throughout the years, if I had a rough day at school or just a rough day outside of baseball, coming in and hitting in the cages or getting some type of lift in, anything baseball-wise just takes my mind off those hard times that have been going on. It seems like my bad day ends when I start playing baseball.”
So far this season at Miami, Zaborowski has been one of the team’s best players. The big 6-foot-6, 235-pound third baseman is hitting .299 and sporting a huge OPS of 1.131 this season. He leads the RedHawks in home runs with 11 and RBI with 24. In more than 20% of his at bats this season, he’s recorded an extra base hit.
“All that hard work is paying off,” LaLiberte said.
Zaborowski’s dedication to his craft is at least partly a product of how hard he is on himself.
“I’m a huge perfectionist. It’s hard to be a perfectionist in baseball, when you’re failing seven out of 10 times,” Zaborowski said. “In practice growing up, I wanted everything to be perfect. “I wanted every swing with the wiffle bat to be a home run. It’s still a little bit like that nowadays.”
Miami’s hitting coach Bailey Montgomery says that it’s great to see Zaborowski having success because he’s so passionate and he puts so much work in. Zaborowski spends almost all of his free time at the baseball facility, immersing himself in the sport.
“He’s a baseball rat,” Montgomery said. “He’s here early in the morning watching video, hitting extra, constantly doing everything and anything to maximize himself … and as soon as he gets home it’s MLB.tv, and he’ll be texting me like ‘did you just see that big Trout swing?’ and stuff like that.”
Montgomery has helped Zaborowski adjust to Miami, serving as a sounding board for all things baseball and otherwise.
“He’s like an uncle to me,” Zaborowski said. “ … I can go to him about anything hitting, anything school wise, anything just in general, outside of school or baseball, and he’s there to help me. Having someone in my corner who knows that I can be successful is huge.”
Some would call Zaborowski’s story inspiring. And he certainly does hope that he can be a role model for other people with autism, especially those who might think they’re incapable of certain things.
“I play with that on my chest. Anyone can do what I’m doing right now on the field. I mean that,” Zaborowski said. “There’s a lot of stuff that I struggle with; there’s a lot of stuff that other kids on the autism spectrum struggle with, but still they have great potential, just like people who aren’t on the spectrum. I really try to voice that loudly.”
Inspiring, or just Ryland being Ryland, Zaborowski’s story is pretty cool.
“I just hope that people don’t look at me differently, in a negative way,” Zaborowski said. “In the past, people have been like, ‘Oh, he’s on the autism spectrum.’ Like, ‘I’m not gonna be friends with him,’ or, ‘I’m not gonna talk to him.’ They assume too much right away … I feel like if you give me a chance to tell my story, who I am, what I have, what condition I have, and the way I work, if you just give me those couple of minutes to explain everything, those people should be able to understand where I’m coming from, what I’ve been through, and that I’m not the person that they think I am.”