ELDERSBURG — When Sean Burns turned 11, he knew that meant his baseball fields were going to get bigger. So like the rest of his peers playing in Sykesville Baseball's rec league, he was going to have to adjust to the longer distances to throw, the faster speed of the game and the bigger opponents.
Burns, though, faced an extra obstacle: He could use only his left arm because of a stroke he suffered when he was in the womb.
After six years of tucking his glove under his right arm and taking the ball out to throw with his left hand, Burns had to figure out how to "be quick enough to get someone that runs quickly out by an inch or two," he said.
Through a winter of trial and error, Burns emerged with "The Flip."
When he played in the field that spring, Burns scooped up the ball with a regular right-handed glove, tossed the ball and glove into the air, grabbed the ball, and unleashed a left-handed throw across the diamond.
"The Flip" was a success.
For his parents and the rest of the Sykesville baseball community, "The Flip" represented the 16-year-old Burns' resolve to adapt to the sports he loves and to excel. And in turn, he has taken advantage of the opportunity to do hands on work with other disabled kids to teach them sports, something he didn't have when he was younger.
"He's the most determined kid I've ever seen," Sykesville Baseball president Kirk Engle said. "He started at age 5 with our tee-ball program, and I've seen him go pretty much all the way through to where he is now. He's been the same from the first year."
The basement of the Burns' home in Eldersburg is decorated with Boston sports memorabilia. Marty Burns grew up in New England as a Red Sox fan, and he passed that love down to Sean, who ranks slugger David Ortiz as his favorite baseball player, followed closely by Los Angeles Dodgers lefty ace Clayton Kershaw.
But mixed in with the photos of NBA legend Larry Bird is a framed, hand-written letter from pitcher Jim Abbott, who played 10 years in the majors and pitched a no-hitter despite being born without a right hand. It encourages Burns to continue his athletic pursuits, and Abbott's signature reads: "Your fan, Jim Abbott."
When Burns was trying to figure out "The Flip," he drew on Abbott's letter as inspiration.
"I'm like, 'All right. So we got to figure out how I'm going to compete at a higher level,'" Burns said. "It just became second nature."
"The Flip" has served Burns well. Though he didn't make the baseball team at Mount St. Joseph in his freshman and sophomore years, he produced an instructional video on his technique for the school's Solutions Showcase, a freshman year capstone project.
Soon after, the Kennedy Krieger Institute — where Burns had done rehab and worked with doctors before — reached out to him about working with its Physically Challenged Sports Program, the Bennett Blazers. He got to work closely with the other children in the program and give them an example of what they can accomplish.
Burns said he wants to stay involved in sports beyond high school, and he sees himself staying in a role where he's helping others.
In Sykesville Baseball's high school league, Burns primarily plays second base and shortstop with some first base and pitcher mixed in. He zips his throws from a three-quarters arm slot, and in his closed left-handed batting stance, he whips the bat through the strike zone with his left arm, easily lining the ball the opposite way. In doing everything one-handed, he's developed great strength in his left arm, and his skill level has remained on par with his teammates and opponents, Engle said.
"[Sykesville Baseball has] been very supportive and encouraging, and everybody always asks about him," Marty Burns said. "Even opposing coaches cheer for him."
One of Burns' top accomplishments this spring came on the mound, where he wears head and chest protection because he can't wear a glove for defense. But Burns still throws a fastball, changeup, slurve, and breaking ball with success.
In a matchup against the league's best batter, Burns held him without a hit.
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"He couldn't hit Sean," his mother, Carolyn, said. "He didn't know what to do with Sean's pitches."
"You completely took the baseball bat out of his hands," the opposing coach told Sean Burns.
In the future, Burns wants to stay involved in sports in some capacity, and he still plays basketball, tennis, and golf. Like most at age 16, he's not quite sure what the future holds for him. But through "The Flip," he's shown what he can do.
"He worked hard," Engle said. "It was all him and his determination. He was the one that was determined to do it. He put the time in to work on it and perfected it."