By David Schriemer, MD
Eric Musselman tried out for the Vicksburg High School baseball team in 2006. As a freshman, Eric hoped he could make one of the teams. Varsity baseball coach Brian Deal recalls, ”I saw this scrawny kid doing drills and when he did sprints his lips turned blue!” But he notes, “He was one of the best pitchers we ever had.”
There was a reason for Eric’s lips to turn blue. At two days of age, he was airlifted to Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. He had a congenital heart disease called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The main pumping chamber of the heart, the left ventricle, never developed. Without immediate intervention it would be fatal. Parents Steve and Cathy were told there were two options: heart transplantation or a series of corrective operations to rearrange the plumbing of the heart, using the right ventricle as the main pumping chamber. Eric had his first operation at eight days old, his second at six months old and the definitive surgery at two years of age.
He remained healthy and started Sunset Lake Elementary with his peers. In 5th grade he had a heart catheterization to modify one of the corrective openings in the heart.
Eric loved soccer and basketball. Cathy and Steve tried to guide him to less strenuous sports like golf and hunting and fishing. It was heartbreaking for his parents to watch Eric get cut from the 7th grade basketball team. He just couldn’t keep up with the other boys running up and down the court.
Then he discovered baseball. He wasn’t big, strong or fast. He couldn’t even throw that hard. Pitching coach Matt Sheets told him, “You’ll never make your high school team throwing ’over the top’.” He taught him to throw sidearm and then even lower, submarine style. With hard work, he learned to make the ball curve and drop. Hitters had never faced a pitcher like Eric. Coach Deal recalls. ”He’d throw the ball up there, it would stop, put on its turn signal and turn left! Nobody could make solid contact!”
After a year on the high school junior varsity team, Eric spent the next three years on varsity. Eric’s unique delivery, pitching savvy and competitiveness caught the eye of college coaches. He excelled for two years at Grand Rapids Community College and was offered a scholarship to play at Ashford University in Iowa.
There was a problem. At his annual cardiology check up he did poorly on a stress test. His team of cardiologists were not certain that he should play. No one with his type of congenital heart disease had ever competed athletically at the college level.
After much discussion, a difficult and emotional decision made solely by Eric: to play. He was careful to stay hydrated and learned when to call the catcher out or infielders to the mound to let him catch his breath. He made 1st team all conference while at Ashford University.
Eric earned his degree in business and is back working in Vicksburg and coaching baseball at Around the Horn, a training facility run by his old pitching coach.
Baseball gave Eric a chance to be a normal kid. He, however, he took the opportunity to become an exceptional person.