Sam Bridgman recalls the thrill of swinging the bat. In his mind's eye, he sends a line drive shooting down the right field line, steams around first and slides into second in a glorious cloud of dust.
Then he returns to reality and rolls slowly in his wheelchair.
Bridgman, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Portland, was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia at age 15. The neuromuscular disease progressively destroys muscle coordination, leading to severe scoliosis, diabetes and life-shortening heart problems.
When he arrived at UP from his home in Seattle three years ago, Bridgman could get by without a wheelchair. He traveled campus on a big tricycle. Later, he needed a manual wheelchair and just recently switched to a power model.
The downward trend in mobility has not prevented him from keeping his job as student manager of the Pilots' baseball team. He polices gear, shoots video and runs the team's Facebook page. And just by making it through each day, he doles out a fair bit of inspiration.
"His spirit is infectious," says Bradford Scott, a head athletic trainer at UP. "I have never met anyone who doesn't want to talk to him." Scott helps Bridgman stay in shape with special workouts, like pushing a weighted sled or high-stepping.
"People around him get inspired," Scott says. "I treat him like any other athlete. Then athletes who see him work hard stop complaining about what they have to do."
Bridgman grew up playing all kinds of sports. He's always been a gamer — an athlete who gives it his all. Now that his body has left the game, he's translated his passion into serving others.
"I have always tried to strive to be the best I can be and now I want to help others be the best they can be," he says. "I love competition. It's very important for me."
Bridgman's disease gets worse each day. He takes it on like it's an arch-rival.
"I have to be on my game all the time," he explains. "In the weight room, and when I exercise, I need to be focused. It's a lot like baseball; it takes mental focus."
It was when he had trouble making his freshman baseball team at Nathan Hale High in Seattle that his parents knew something was wrong. He'd been a standout. After a visit to the doctor, he suffered through long tests and finally got the bad news.
Bridgman made it through great tsunamis of anger and is still miffed that his once-athletic body is quitting. He plainly tells his friends that he'd like to be out on the field doing what they can do. The honesty is a sign that he's telling the truth when he says he has accepted his situation.
Even in high school, Bridgman still wanted to be part of the team, so signed on as baseball student manager. He eventually landed a summer job in customer service with the Seattle Mariners and then was chosen at UP.
He's a finance major who'd like someday to work in the front office of a major sports franchise or athletic association.
"I just want to be involved in sports," he says.
Bridgman doesn't know what the future holds for his body. Researchers have made progress on Friedreich’s ataxia, but can't reverse it.
Great friendships have kept him positive, he says. Among his recent activities have been modified bicycling and wheelchair rugby. He can roll into the batting cage and take hacks with the help of a coach or player.
On the baseball field at UP, the players do the best thing they possibly can — treat him like just another guy. They have his back and know he has theirs.
"I am there to give my support," Bridgman says. "That's my main goal in life."