May 14, 2015
Smiles were hard to come by last season for University of Notre Dame baseball outfielder Ryan Bull.
Hitting .319 and driving in 38 runs as a sophomore in 2013, the switch-hitting Bull entered his junior season eager to build on his monster numbers and impress pro scouts.
Struggling at the plate, Bull ended up hitting .212 last season, driving in 10 runs.
Notre Dame mirrored Bull’s rough 2014 season, as the Fighting Irish ended up 21-32, with a 9-21 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
On Saturday, after the Irish took a doubleheader from No. 20 North Carolina on their way to a three-game sweep of the Tar Heels, Bull’s beaming smile told the story of a remarkable turnaround, not just for him, but for the Irish.
Bull, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder, is hitting .250 this season with 37 hits, four doubles, four homers, 16 walks, seven hit by pitch, 22 RBI and 23 runs scored while sporting a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in leftfield.
Sparked by Bull’s senior-season power surge, the Irish are 33-18 overall and 15-12 in the ACC.
After the 2014 Irish season ended on a Bull walk-off homer to sweep Pittsburgh at Frank Eck Stadium, the Eden Prairie, Minnesota native headed to Kalamazoo, Michigan to play in the Northwoods League and find answers.
“I think the summer was really important to Ryan,” Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said. “I think some time away to reflect on what went wrong was really important for him.
“I think a lot of the travails of last year were, to a certain extend, self-created. I think he put a lot of expectations on himself. I think he put a lot of expectations on the draft and all of these things. I think he was too worried about things that are beyond any player’s control.”
Bull looked to change his mental approach rather than change his swing. He knew that instead of pressing and dwelling on his prospects in the Major League Draft, he needed to shift his focus from himself to his team.
“I think I learned a lot going through what I did,” Bull said. “I matured a little bit in the summer when I was able to play in the Northwoods League and have a fresh, new outlook coming into my senior season.
“I understand it was my last opportunity to play collegiate baseball and be around these guys that I had been around, my senior class, for four years, embrace what an awesome experience it has been to don a Notre Dame uniform and get to know these guys and really appreciate and make the most of the opportunities that I’ve had,” Bull said. “It’s come to the forefront for me.”
When Bull returned to Notre Dame in the fall, the Irish baseball team went through the Brian Cain mental conditioning system. It gave Bull a roadmap to put 2014 in his rear-view mirror and to focus on what he can control.
“I think that’s played an integral role in my life and many of my teammates’ lives,” Bull said of the Cain approach. “I think going through that process and understanding the mental aspect of baseball helps you have some perspective on things and understand that the game goes one pitch at a time. It doesn’t matter if you line out, hit a home run or strike out, it’s just one pitch at a time. Winning a single pitch, and, ultimately, it’s the culmination of all of those pitches, and if you win enough pitches, you have the greatest likelihood of winning a baseball game.”
Aoki said when Bull quit focusing on his stats and potential draft status, the game fell into place for him.
“When Ryan just stopped worrying about that stuff and just started worrying about trying to be the best player that he could be, as opposed to worrying about all of the outside noise, I think he got back to being who and what he is,” Aoki said. “And he has been a very productive hitter for three out of the four years he’s been here, and he’s a kid who has come through with a lot of big hits for us and has been a big part of our offense. Sometimes you have to learn some lessons the hard way, and I think he did that last year.
“Ryan’s gotten out of himself and he’s gotten into the fortunes of the team. It’s funny how the game pays you back when you do that. It pays you back, because once you stop worrying about all of your own stuff and you start worrying about the team, the game will finally give back to you and it has for him.”
Irish teammate Mac Hudgins said Bull displayed great mental strength in emerging as one of the ACC’s most improved players in 2015.
“Ryan is a mentally tough kid,” Hudgins said. “He’s had ups and downs in a very long and distinguished career. He’s got the mental fortitude to come back from a season like that and help us on the field. He’s totally bought into the team-first attitude. It shows. He’s having quality at-bats and having team-first at-bats. That’s all you can ask for.
“Ryan’s had a big impact for us, both on the field and off the field. He’s a guy we all look to as a positive influence, a hard worker. He’s not just a guy who sets an example in the weight room or the classroom only. He gets it done on the field, too.”
As Bull and the Irish get ready to finish up the regular season and make an impact in the ACC Tournament, Aoki sees that Bull has crafted a lasting legacy.
“I think Ryan’s been great,” Aoki said. “He’s shown the younger guys about being on an even keel, working on his craft.
“I think, this story, right now, is a really good one, to have as difficult of a year and as trying of a year as he had last season, he’s emerged from it, he’s learned from it and he’s developed from it–and that’s a really powerful story to tell our guys.
“We’re going to have kids in future years going into their junior years, where the draft is going to enter into their minds. We have a group of freshman pitchers who are probably going to be subject to that. We’re probably going to have a few of our sophomores be subject to that, in Cavan (Biggio) and Ryan (Lidge), so I think that the story he can relate to those guys is that, ‘Look, you can’t get caught up in a bunch of things you can’t control. Just try to be the very best player that you can, try to help the team in any way, shape or form that you can.'”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent