The sun was easing down behind the right field stands at Yale Field and a light wind was beginning to turn the early spring day from pleasant to chilly. Everyone seemed to be passing into a late Sunday afternoon stupor. Everyone except Zac Bradley ’06.

The baseball team was playing the second game of a doubleheader against Pace early in the 2005 season. The Bulldogs won the first game easily and were leading the second game 2-0 in the bottom of the third. With one out and nobody on, Bradley worked the count to 3-2, hit a dribbler to the mound, and legged out an infield single.

As pitcher David Qualben was preparing to throw his first pitch to the next batter, Marc Sawyer ’07, Qualben turned and lobbed a pickoff throw to first. But Bradley, sensing an opportunity, bolted for second. Upon catching the ball, the Pace first baseman fired to second, but the second baseman missed the catch in a sliding mass of dust and cleats. As the ball trickled into center field, Bradley jumped to his feet, sprinted for third, and beat the throw with a trademark headfirst slide.

When Qualben finally threw his first pitch to Sawyer, the Eli first baseman slammed a grounder to second and Bradley dashed home to score the Bulldogs’ third run. Yale ended up winning the game 3-0 — an easy victory against a weaker opponent in a non-conference game — but in Zac Bradley’s eyes, he might as well have been playing the seventh game of the World Series.

Whether he’s flying through the outfield to make a diving catch, leaning into a pitch to take one for the team, or sliding head first to notch another stolen base, the Elis’ leadoff hitter always leaves the field with some of it on him. Bradley is the spark plug at the top of the Bulldogs’ lineup. Any baseball fan who sees him play will immediately think of Craig Biggio, Derek Jeter or even Ichiro Suzuki — true playmakers, the kind of guys who do whatever it takes to create runs on offense or save them on defense.

Not bad for somebody who, two years ago, was told that he would never play baseball again.

Playing dirty

Everybody likes Zac Bradley — except for the people who have to do his laundry.

“The equipment guys always have some interesting things to say to me,” Bradley said. “They’re not such big fans of the headfirst slide. I guess the best word to describe my game is ‘dirty.’ Dirt under your fingernails, dirt on your uniform, just going out there at full speed.”

Bradley’s mentality has not changed much since his early baseball days, though he was not always the fastest or most talented player on the field.

“My first memory of baseball was just being the really bad kid on the team,” Bradley said. “I was the one picking flowers and playing in the dirt in right field. I had no idea what was going on, but I was always the dirtiest when the game was over.”

Yale’s leadoff hitter has come a long way from rolling around on the warm Arkansas ground. A two-sport star in high school, Bradley was recruited by Yale as a defensive back as well as an outfielder, but decided to stick to baseball.

“Zac is our igniter,” head coach John Stuper said. “Not just because he bats first and steals lots of bases, but because of his personality. He’s a baseball player. He comes ready to play every day, and he just loves to be out there. He brings so much energy to the game and to practice.”

If you ask Bradley his favorite thing about being a leadoff hitter, his eyes light up and a mischievous grin spreads across his face.

“I like to make the other team feel uncomfortable,” Bradley said. “I think that whenever I get on base and do my thing, it puts the other team on edge and gives us an advantage.”

Bradley’s ability to create plays on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game has helped energize the Elis time after time. When the Bulldogs traveled to Cambridge to play Harvard in a four-game set two weeks ago, Bradley scored five of Yale’s 14 runs in the series.

Although the Elis lost three out of four, Harvard starter Mike Morgalis discovered firsthand how disruptive Bradley can be at bat and on the bases.

“As far as pitching to him, he definitely crowds the plate, and as a pitcher you think that you should pitch him inside,” Morgalis said. “The only problem with that is you don’t want to give him a free base via hit batsman … because of his speed. Zac is a player who plays the game hard for every inning of each game, and as an opponent you have to respect him for that intensity.”

On the defensive side, Bradley has showcased impressive glove-work for the Elis, whether playing second base or center field. Stuper said Bradley made a number of plays in the field during the Harvard series that any big league second baseman would have been proud to have made. And the Bulldog pitchers are always thrilled to see No. 1 behind them, no matter where he is playing.

“Zac Bradley just knows how to make things happen,” pitcher Josh Sowers ’05 said. “He is the biggest playmaker on our team and is so valuable because he can play any position. I always know he is someone I can rely on to make the big play or to get the team excited to win a game.”

According to his teammates, Bradley always comes through for them off the field as well.

“He’s always there to pick you up when you have problems, baseball or personal,” Adam Barrick ’06 said. “Coming off of arm surgery last year, I pitched in our first game this year against Davidson. I basically blew the game. Afterwards, Zac came up to me and said, ‘Look, this is the first time you’ve been on the mound in two years. Just being out there is an accomplishment in and of itself.’ Zac is always picking you up when you’re down.”

Working through tragedy

Bradley knows what it’s like to come back from a career threatening injury. He also knows what it’s like to struggle through a life-changing tragedy.

Returning from a Delta Kappa Epsilon event in New York City in the early hours of Jan. 17, 2003, the sport utility vehicle Bradley was riding in collided with a jackknifed tractor-trailer on I-95 near Fairfield, Conn. Four Yale students lost their lives — Sean Fenton ’04, Matt Dwyer ’05, Kyle Burnat ’05 and Nick Grass ’05 — and the others in the car were severely injured. Bradley suffered a broken jaw and a compound fracture of his left arm.

But even in the gravest of situations, Bradley still had baseball on his mind.

“I remember waking up from my first surgery the night of the accident,” Bradley said. “My mom and Coach Stuper were in the room, and I remember asking coach if I was going to be able to play. He told me it didn’t look good for that year.”

After returning to his home in Arkansas to recover from his injuries, Bradley had another arm surgery. In the days that followed the procedure, he was told that he would never be able to play baseball again.

“The first night after that was really hard on me and my family,” Bradley said. “Baseball was always my thing. I had a sort of identity crisis when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to play again. But that only lasted through the night. This sounds kind of cheesy, but when the sun came up, I realized I had nothing to feel sorry for myself about — I had my life to live. I remember going out to a little league game with my dad. I had my arm in a sling and I had just been told I was never going to play again. But being out there and smelling the grass and the popcorn, hearing the bat hit the ball — things like that really drove me to get back.”

It turns out that telling Bradley he would never return to the diamond was the best thing the doctor could have said. It stirred Bradley’s competitive fires, and he embarked on a long and difficult road to recovery.

“You never want someone else to tell you what you can and can’t do,” Bradley said. “So I just went through the physical therapy — more therapy than anyone can ever imagine. It was painful and there were rough spots, times when I didn’t think I’d get though it, times when I wanted to quit. But I was motivated by my desire to get back and to be competitive, and to prove people wrong.”

As Bradley worked to return to the game, he was also forced to confront the loss of his good friends in the accident. Burnat was a very close friend of Bradley, and Grass was his best friend.

“Nick Grass was like my brother, like my twin,” Bradley said. “We took every class together, we were everywhere together. When you lose somebody like that, it scars you. I guess the first thing everyone told me after you lose friends is that time heals all wounds. And not that time is ever going to make a single day go by where I don’t think about it, but now I can remember the good times.”

Stealing the show

After missing the entire 2003 season, Bradley returned to the lineup in 2004 only to be sidelined with another shoulder injury in the team’s fifth game. Two weeks later, he was back on the diamond. Playing with fractured parts of his arm held together by a steel rod that ran from his shoulder to his humerus, Bradley excelled in a part-time role that included seven starts, a good amount of pinch running and even a couple of stints on the mound. Though every swing was painful, Bradley still made his presence felt — especially on an early April day at Yale Field.

The Elis were playing Princeton, a team that has won three of the past four Ivy titles, on April 9, 2004. Mike Mongiardini ’07 and the Tigers’ Ross Ohlendorf were locked in a pitcher’s duel. The Ivy rivals were playing a seven-inning game, and the Bulldogs were down 1-0 going into the bottom of the seventh. Ohlendorf, who was eventually picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the fourth round of the 2004 MLB draft, had been perfect through six innings.

But Justin Ankey ’07 slammed a single to right for a base hit to lead off the seventh. Randy Leonard ’04 bunted him to second, and Marc Sawyer ’07 plated Ankney with an RBI single to center. After Sawyer moved to second on bobble by the center fielder, Bradley came in to pinch-run. Ohlendorf then plunked cleanup hitter John Janco ’06 and walked the next batter, Matt Stone ’06, to load the bases.

According to Stuper, who was coaching third base, Bradley wanted to steal home from the moment he arrived at third.

“As soon as Zac got to third, he told me, ‘I can steal it coach, I can steal it. Coach, I can steal it,'” Stuper said. “I said ‘Zac, I heard you. But there’s only one out. Let’s see what Jake [Doyle ’07] can do.'”

Doyle struck out, bringing Orrico to the plate. After Ohlendorf evened the count at 1-1, Stuper gave Bradley the go-ahead.

“Zac looked at me, and I sort of muttered the words ‘go ahead,’ with some trepidation,” Stuper said. “When Ohlendorf started to go into the windup, Zac took off. My assistant coach John Dorman saw it, and he later told me he was thinking, ‘Wow, what a great fake!’ But Zac just kept going.”

Orrico, a lefty, did not see Bradley racing toward home until he was starting to swing.

“I was just up there trying to get a hit,” Orrico said. “Next thing I know, I see Zac busting toward home. I thought I missed a sign or something. I was just as surprised as the pitcher that he was going.”

Fortunately, Orrico did not hit the ball — or Bradley — and the Elis won the game.

“It wasn’t even close at home,” Stuper said. “The crowd went berserk. This is my 20th year of coaching, and without question, that is the most exciting play I’ve ever been a part of. And nowadays, when he gets on third, I haven’t seen anybody pitch from the windup again.”

Moving forward

Bradley’s remarkable comeback has earned him the respect and admiration of his peers in the athletic community.

“Zac is one extraordinary young man,” athletics director Tom Beckett said. “His strength of character and determination put him in an elite classification. He has returned to our community after the tragic accident … and become an inspiration for not only his teammates but for all of us who know him. He has worked tirelessly to recover fully from the injuries he received on that terrible day to help lead his team to a very successful spring season.”

In 2005, Bradley has been almost perfect as a leadoff hitter. He ranks first on the team in runs (22) and steals (11) — good for third-most in the league in that latter category — and has only been caught once. And while he leads the Elis in strikeouts (30), he also leads them in walks (15).

Now that he has made it back and cemented his status as one of the top playmakers in the Ivy League, Bradley hopes to play baseball for as long as possible.

“Baseball was one of the reasons I was able to come back from my injury, just because it’s something I’ve been passionate about all my life,” Bradley said. “I’d like to continue to play baseball for as long as I can, be it pro, semi-pro, or coaching.”

But Bradley likes to keep things in perspective. He still wears the tattered Yale baseball cap that Grass gave him during their first year on the team.

“I lost my hat freshman year, so Nick gave me his,” Bradley said. “It fits right, and I don’t like breaking in new hats. And I guess it helps me, not to move on, but to move forward, carrying them with me. Besides, I like the old-school, dirty look. That’s just the way I play.”

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