Ben Bills has long enjoyed a burning passion for baseball.
Fulfilling that passion, however, has not been easy for the former Christian School of York standout.
In fact, Bills’ baseball journey has been littered with obstacles that could have easily dimmed his love of the game.
First, there was the high school counselor who told him that his plan for a college baseball career was likely nothing but a pipe dream.
Then there was the elbow injury that threatened him with the three worst words that any pitcher can hear — Tommy John surgery.
Finally, the strapping 197-pound Bills dropped 60 pounds in an alarmingly short period before he was eventually diagnosed with a type-1 form of diabetes.
Through it all, Bills never lost his love for baseball. In fact, he used the hurdles as motivation to succeed.
And he has succeeded.
College success: He’s not only carved out a career in college baseball, he’s become an all-conference performer.
Playing this past spring for Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Texas, the 6-foot-1 rising junior was named to the All-Sooner Athletic Conference Second Team as a first baseman. Bills hit .377 this season at SAGU while leading the Lions to the SAC final. Bills clubbed a dramatic walk-off two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning in the SAC semifinals.
Bills finished his sophomore campaign, his first at SAGU after transferring from Nyack College in New York, with 18 doubles, two triples, five home runs and 29 RBIs.
Bills was also the ace of the SAGU staff. The right-hander finished 5-9 in 15 starts while sporting a team-best 4.98 ERA. Bills also set a school-record with 85 innings pitched.
He's also excelled this summer in limited action with Conrads in the Susquehanna League. In just 15 games, he's hitting .360 with three homers and 19 RBIs. He's also 1-1 on the mound with a 2.80 ERA, striking out 15 and walking one in 10 innings.
For Bills, his success on the diamond in recent months is just validation for all of the hard work that he's put into his craft, while also overcoming a series of major hurdles.
Not good enough: “When I was still at Dallastown, I had a guidance counselor tell me that I wasn’t good enough to play in college,” he said. “It was just one day and she asked me what my goals were after I graduated from high school and I told her to play college baseball. And I remember her telling me that I might want to lower my expectations.”
Instead of succumbing to the negativity that he initially felt after hearing that, one thing kept popping up in his mind.
“I’ll show her,” he said. “It really hurt, but it did motivate me.”
Hearing from "haters:" After transferring to CSY after his sophomore year of high school, Bills continued to hear from those he called the “haters.”
Achieving success at a big school such as Dallastown is a much higher bar to reach when compared to a very small school such as CSY. Thus, any accomplishments he earned while playing for the then Crusaders — CSY now goes by Defenders — were usually dismissed.
“I really didn’t care whether or not I got my name in the paper,” Bills said. “When you go the Christian School of York, you go there to play, have fun and try to win games. And there are quite a few ‘haters’ out there that want to complain. They say it’s such a small school and that you don’t play against any really tough competition.”
It’s the next part of that sentence that rang like a bell in Bills’ head.
“They said that when you get to college that you’ll never play, because we’re not used to that competition,” he said.
That’s all that he needed to hear. Almost immediately he jumped into “I’ll-show-them” mode.
Arm woes: Not all of the obstacles that Bills has had to endure over his baseball career were of the mental variety.
First, early during his senior year at CSY in 2017, Bills was initially diagnosed with an arm injury that would likely require the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
“It was myfirststart of the year against Lancaster County Christian,” he said. “Like four or five pitches into the game I tore it (my ulnar collateral ligament). Not completely, but it hurt.”
Bills was pretty set against getting the surgery to repair his UCL. He saw two doctors locally who both confirmed that he would need to go under the knife.
Going with acupuncture: Instead of accepting those opinions, however, Bills sought out another opinion from Dr. David Cohen, who is one of the team physicians for the Baltimore Orioles.
“I really wanted to avoid surgery at all costs,” he said. “And he said I didn’t need it, but there was a chance I would if I kept pitching.”
Cohen recommended that Bills see Dr. Marc Wasserman at the Flow Health Clinic in Hunt Valley, Maryland, for acupuncture treatments. Wasserman is a specialist with a great deal of experience healing ligament tears from learning acupuncture in China.
“Dr. Cohen said acupuncture was better then surgery,” Ben’s father, Ed Bills, said. “Because it starts the healing process faster.”
Life-changing meeting: After about five months of rest as well as many acupuncture treatments from Wasserman, Bills was introduced to a sports therapist in Massachusetts who changed his life.
“I saw this guy, Kevin McGovern, who was a guy that (former York Revolution standout) Jason Aspito from Backyard University recommended,” Bills said. “He lives near Boston and he basically taught me how to throw without stressing out my elbow.”
Bills, his father and his good friend Anthony Torruellas all drove up to visit McGovern in October.
“I didn’t even really know if that was like possible,” Bills said.
After a seven-hour session that included stretching and throwing exercises as well as a tutorial on where and how to throw without hurting his elbow, Bills was on his way back to throwing.
“It was a lot of how to throw pitches and where to let go and how to let go,” he said. “And I hadn’t thrown in over five months, but on that day he got me back throwing on the mound and I felt pretty good.”
Frightening experience: During his first year at Nyack College’s Rockland, New York campus, Bills overcame something far greater than “haters” or a nasty arm injury.
Shortly after getting into the best physical shape of his life, something weird happened. Full of muscle and weighing a robust 197 pounds in the fall, Bills experienced a few weeks of excessive weight loss.
At the lowest point, Bills weighed in at a sickly 137 pounds.
Everyone grew worried.
“I felt like I was the strongest and fastest I’ve ever been,” Bills said. “And then December rolls around and I’m losing tons of weight. I don’t know what’s going on and Anthony (Torruellas) is my roommate and he’s watching me drink like two or three gallons of water a day, which is an absurd amount. And we’re both wondering what’s going on.”
Learning he's diabetic: Like many athletes his age, Bills refused to believe anything major was happening. He kept thinking it was just a passing thing.
As it turned out, it was much worse.
“Fortunately, my mom took me to the hospital,” Bills said. “She noticed that my ribs were popping out and my eyes were sunken and I was really pale. All I remember was that I felt like I was dying. So they did some tests and the normal range of blood sugar for an 18-year-old athlete is somewhere between 90 and 120. And when the results were complete I was at 970. I was very much diabetic.”
Bills was diagnosed with severe ketoacidosis, a type-1 form of diabetes.
“Type 1, you have it for life,” Bills said. “My pancreas just stops working. So, every time I eat, it’s taking injections.”
Getting lots of help: Initially, that diagnosis was a bitter pill to swallow. The mind immediately jumps to feelings that life will never be good again.
“Yeah, for the first couple of months it kind of stinks,” Bills said. “But after that it just becomes like a daily routine.”
Throughout his medical ordeals, Bills feels fortunate to have had strong support around him from his parents, Ed Bills and Paula Eckert, and his stepmother, Terry Bills. His teammates have also been there for him, especially his good friend, Torruellas.
“AT has been with me every step of the way,” Bills said. “He came with me to all of my doctors’ appointments, he learned nutrition facts and learned what to do in case of an emergency. He’s always been there.”
College transfer: Bills transferred from Nyack, a NCAA Division II Christian program, to SAGU, a NAIA Division I program, after completing the first semester of his sophomore year. The move was out of his control.
Shortly after starting the school year last September, the college announced that it was going to sell the Rockland campus just outside of New York City and shift all of its programs to the Manhattan-based campus starting in 2019.
That announcement helped crystallize a decision for Nyack baseball coach Matt Cornacchione, who was already seeking to move after the birth of his second child.
“We just felt it was a better situation for our family than living in the suburbs of New York City,” Cornacchione said. “Especially since our family didn’t have ties to the area.”
Cornacchione, who was friendly with the Bills family since Ben was 15, opted to move to Texas, where he became the head baseball coach at SAGU in the summer of 2018.
After the first semester at Nyack in December of last year, both Bills and his college teammate, Logan Mann, transferred to the campus in Waxahachie, Texas, for the start of the second semester in January.
Not all roses in Texas: The move down south wasn’t all roses for Bills.
It didn’t take long for Bills to start hearing from the “haters” again.
“I know a lot of the guys on the team thought that I was just there because I was the ‘coach's pet,’” Bills said. “They thought that the only reason I was playing was because he coached me last year.”
Cornacchione was aware of the whispers, which he thought were completely unfounded.
“If anything, I was harder on (Ben) than anyone else,” he said. “And I know that there’s an added stigma and more pressure on him to perform, because if he doesn’t, than it does look like I’m playing favorites.”
Despite the fact that Bills received limited playing time his freshman year at Nyack, Cornacchione was happy to bring Bills along with him to Texas. He was confident that with his health scares behind him, Bills would excel at his new school.
Just to prove the doubters wrong, Bills had a huge game to kick off the season for SAGU.
“That first game, I think he hit three doubles,” Cornacchione said. “And after that game I just said to myself ‘well I guess that’s the end of that.’ I knew that he was comfortable.”
Hoping to get drafted: If things continue to move in a positive direction on the baseball field for Bills, he’s hoping to cross off one more item on his bucket list — to become a major league draft pick.
While NAIA Division I baseball is not the same level as NCAA Division I, Cornacchione would not be the least bit surprised if that happened sometime over the next two summers.
“There have been a handful of guys that have been drafted out of our league the past few years,” he said. “And I know Ben wants to add his name to that list.”
As far as Bills is concerned, there is one sure way to make it happen — someone needs to tell him that it's never going to happen.
“Somebody just needs to tell me no,” Bills said. “And one day I’ll be there.”
Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.