Years at Ball State: 1999-2002
Hall of Fame Class: 2014-2015
Editor's note: "For the Record" is a weekly series featuring former stand-out Ball State athletes and their lives after college.
On June 4, 2002, in Fishers, Indiana, Bryan Bullington sits in front of a computer on the second floor of his parents' home. Ball State baseball head coach Rich Maloney sits on one side of him, Bullington's mom on the other. His dad, overtaken by nerves, is outside pacing in anticipation.
Also in the room is his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Lauren, and many other friends from school. Bullington, a junior pitcher from Ball State, is projected to be selected with one of the first three picks of the 2002 MLB Draft.
They boot up the old dial-up internet connection.
"It was pretty shaky," Bullington said.
By the time the stubborn internet loads, the ninth pick had already been announced. Bullington and his entourage watch for maybe 30 seconds, attempting to figure out what had occurred minutes before.
The phone rings.
"It was the general manager from the Pittsburgh Pirates," Bullington said. "By the time he called me, he was expecting that I was already aware of the pick. But I had no idea."
Bullington was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft — and he didn't even get to witness it live.
The Indianapolis native played three seasons under Maloney before getting his first real job with a $4 million signing bonus.
“Bryan was one of those unique individuals with a tremendous drive and competitive fire," Maloney said. "I always thought he was the kind of guy you’d like your daughter to marry. That would be the kind of guy he is.”
Now 35, Bullington's name appears in the Ball State baseball record book 18 times. He still holds the record for most career wins (29), most strikeouts in a season (139) and most career strikeouts (357). With honors like All-American, Freshman All-American, Mid-American-Conference Pitcher of the Year and MAC Freshman of the Year, his awards are just as impressive as his records, if not more so.
"To me, he was the all-American kid," Maloney said.
Bullington worked his way through the minor leagues quickly, spending one year each in Single-A and Double-A before being assigned to Triple-A Indianapolis for the 2005 season. He cracked the big leagues that year, making one appearance for the Pirates, but he didn't pitch again that year. He hurt his shoulder — a torn labrum —- which required surgery and rehabilitation.
He was out of baseball for nearly 18 months.
"It’s a very unique experience, especially going in as a high pick with a sense of expectation," Bullington said. "I think I definitely put pressure on myself to perform."
When he returned in 2007, Bullington said the Pirates had a deep farm system — all four pitchers to top 100 innings for Pittsburgh were 25 or younger, and the 26-year-old was the odd man out.
"We were all kind of on the cusp of getting to the big leagues," Bullington said. "They were able to get there before me and had some success."
From 2008 to 2010, Bullington bounced around Triple-A with stops in Buffalo, New York, Las Vegas and Omaha, Nebraska, getting call-ups with the Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals.
Bullington's final big-league season in 2010 wasn't his last season playing pro ball, though, as he was approached by the Hiroshima Carp of the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization's Central League in Japan. He and Lauren, who is a former volleyball player at Ball State, their then-four-year-old daughter Isabella and one-year-old twin boys Matthew and Jack packed up and left for Asia.
"You're committing to go live halfway around the world for eight, nine months," Bullington said.“We were really excited for the change and for the culture opportunity for us, for the kids."
Eight or nine months quickly turned into five years. He posted a 3.25 ERA across four seasons with the Carp and one with the Orix Buffaloes of the Pacific League. After hanging up his spikes, Bullington now resides in a suburb of Chicago. But Bullington's job in baseball is far from over. He's begun a lengthy coaching career — his seven-year-old sons are ready to step on the diamond.
"They're all getting going with their stuff now, so it's been a lot of fun to be a part of," Bullington said.
Bullington recently took a job with the Milwaukee Brewers as a scouting coach.
He certainly doesn't forget about his Ball State baseball roots though, and Maloney makes sure Bullington's legacy as a Cardinal doesn't fade.
Maloney recalled a game he said is “the greatest story I always tell my team.” It was the first round of the 2002 MAC Tournament, two weeks before the draft, and Ball State was playing rival Kent State.
“Bryan probably pitches the worst game he pitched in his career,” Maloney said. "We lost 13-3. The whole Pittsburgh Pirates staff was there."
The Cardinals moved to the losers' bracket and it looked as though Bullington's college career had ended. Ball State, however, won its next two games to get back to the finals against Kent State. The Cardinals would need to win twice, and Bullington wanted to pitch in the first game. But on two days rest and with a projected big pay day coming up, Maloney said he didn't want to risk injury for his star pitcher.
So instead, Kory Bucklew started. Bullington pleaded his case before the game, though, and Maloney sent him to the bullpen.
"Bryan says, 'but coach I don’t want to end my career like that at Ball State. I owe it to my teammates,'" Maloney said. "In that moment he got everything he was supposed to get about what we do in our program. About being a good teammate, playing for the team beyond yourself."
Bullington ran out to the mound in relief after Bucklew allowed four runs in three innings. In the final six innings, Bullington struck out six batters. He also allowed five runs, though it was enough for the 16-9 win. Ball State lost the second game and Kent State won the tournament, but it was Bullington's talent and competitiveness that still stick in Maloney's memory.
"He was electric," Maloney said. "But that's Bryan Bullington."