Baseball is a game that overflows with numbers. No other sport has more statistics than baseball – there’s batting average, RBI’s, slugging percentage, OBP (on-base percentage), OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) – and those are strictly just a few offensive statistics. We could spend a whole day going through the pitching, defense, and base running statistics. Numbers help to describe the game; it’s like a science.
But there is more to baseball than just numbers. Baseball is also a game that overflows with passion. It’s a game that the odds are stacked up against you. Even the best players to ever step inside a batter’s box are destined to fail 70 percent of the time. Ted Williams – widely considered as the best hitter of all time – said it best, “Baseball is the only endeavor in which a man can fail seven out of 10 times and be considered a good performer.”
However, this is not a story about numbers. This is a story about how the odds can be stacked up against you in life, and the passion for baseball helps to ease the pain.
Cory Bukowski fell in love with the game of baseball at the age of five by picking up a ball in the backyard and playing catch with his father. Quickly, he became quite good at the game and began to play travel baseball at the age of seven. By the time he was 10 years old, his dream was to play college baseball.
“I love baseball because it’s a big game of chess,” said Bukowski. “You have to think about what the players are thinking, what the coaches are thinking, and what your coach wants you to do. Plus, making the impossible plays – the hardest thing to do is hit a 90 miles-per-hour fastball. It’s a challenging sport, but it’s fun to play. If you’re at a game and try to understand it, I think you fall in love with it.”
After graduating from Depew High School in 2009, his dream was realized as he was on the roster as a first baseman at NCAA Division II Gannon University in Erie, PA. One of the major driving forces as motivation to improve to become a college baseball player was his mother, Julie Bukowski.
At Gannon University, you need passion like how a cell phone needs a battery. Baseball begins at 5:30 in the morning, followed by a hitting workout at noon, and finishing with practice each night from 10 p.m. to midnight. “Those were long, long baseball days,” said Cory. “But it was fun.”
His mother had been to every baseball game since he started playing at age five. She was sitting on the bleachers, or in a lawn chair, as the scorekeeper for each game. In 2004, she even kept score each game for Cory’s travel team that played in a week-long tournament in Cooperstown, NY, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has a picture of the two of them standing at home plate in Cooperstown – him wearing his jersey, and her wearing a “Scorekeeper Mom” t-shirt.
Julie was a baseball enthusiast – a huge New York Yankees fan with a not-so-subtle love affair for Derek Jeter.
“I can go to every field I’ve ever played on and tell you where she would be sitting,” said Cory. “When I would swing at a pitch in the air or in the dirt she would yell at me and say ‘what the hell are you doing!’ or I would get a huge ‘Cory Walter!’ from the stands.”
However, during his only year at Gannon University, the odds were stacked up against Cory and the entire Bukowski family. His mother Julie was thought to have lymphoma. But at the beginning of the 2010 spring semester, she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
With his older brother Steve finishing up his degree at Mercyhurst College, Cory decided to transfer to Erie Community College to be closer to his family. Cory continued his baseball career by playing fall ball with ECC, and still had his biggest fan in the stands. His mother’s illness did not stop her from watching Cory play the game they both loved dearly.
“She went to every baseball game in the fall even when she was really sick and in a wheelchair,” said Cory, who gave his mother a signed Derek Jeter baseball for her birthday while she was sick.
But right after the fall season at ECC was done, Julie’s fight with lung cancer was over. On November 16, 2010, Julie Bukowski passed away at the age of 45. Cory, then at the age of 19, went to baseball practice the very next day.
“Baseball keeps your mind off of it,” said Cory. “And doing something that my mom loved watching me do really helped to keep going.”
“She lit up a room definitely with her smile and her laugh too,” he added. “My mom would drop anything to help a person. She was definitely someone you can’t replace.”
This was obviously the most devastating and traumatic event that happened to Cory. However, even though his mother’s life had ended, Cory did not let his own life come to a halt. He continued to play baseball, and used the game he is most passionate about to help cope with the pain.
“Just because you lose someone you love, doesn’t mean you’re going to lose something else you love also,” said Cory. “So you have to hold onto it and never let it go. I thought about dropping baseball, but I knew that it wouldn’t help at all. My recovery process was to keep playing baseball. Some days I would just go sit out at the field and look out and think.”
His teammates at ECC, all of whom went to Julie’s wake, really helped Cory cope with the loss of his mother. And in the 2011 season, the team went on a magical run. Cory was the backup first baseman on the team and was able to earn spot duty as a designated hitter.
In his first at-bat for ECC after his mother’s death, Cory belted a homerun. Seemingly, a perfect script had already been written.
“I texted my dad right away and said that one was for mom,” said Cory.
That season, ECC won its region in playoffs and made the Junior College World Series in Tyler, TX where the players were treated as professionals by signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. Cory was able to play one inning in the field at first base, as the team finished fourth in the country. “It was an amazing opportunity,” he said.
One year later, Cory got a tattoo on his left arm in honor of his mother. It is a ribbon that says “mom” in it and there are angel wings on the ends, with the dates of when she was born and when she died. “I told her when she was sick that I was going to get something for her, and I told her my ideas and she liked that one the best so I got it for her.”
Cory is now a 21-year-old sports management major at Medaille – after transferring from ECC for the spring 2012 semester – playing in his first season with the baseball team. He has continued to play baseball during each summer since his mother passed away. Baseball is one of the best ways that Cory gets to keep a connection with her.
“My dad continues to help coach during the summer, so it keeps the whole family still there,” said Cory. “My grandma still comes to my games and my mom is always there too, just not physically.”
Before each at-bat, he touches the plate with his bat and looks up to the sky. Just like former Yankee Nick Swisher does every plate appearance. And after each time safely reaching base with a solid hit, he pays his respects to his mother.
Cory feels that he is a better overall baseball player and person in general, who does not take life for granted. His passion for baseball has not wavered, it has only grown stronger. “I realize that baseball is not given to us, we have to earn it. You have to earn the opportunity to be out there. It’s not a right, it’s a privilege to play.”
What does Cory remember most about his mother? “She kept pushing me to play baseball and be my best, and never let anything get me down,” he said. Without baseball, Cory admits that his ability to cope with the loss of a loved one would have been completely different. It certainly would have been a lot tougher.
So just like in baseball how the odds are stacked against you when you walk up to the plate, the odds were stacked high against Cory in life, and to continue to play the game he passionately loves.
“Everything that happened to me in a two-to-three year time span was odds stacking up against me and I felt like the odds just kept building up,” said Cory. “It got to where it wasn’t three-out-of 10 anymore; it was one-out-of 10, or .5-out-of 10. I guess I kind of beat those odds. It feels like an accomplishment to still be playing.”
“I feel like it’s going to be really hard for something to get me down, because now I have a different take on life in general. I feel like it’s really hard to get someone down that’s been through so much and overcame it already. I can take on almost anything now.”
As you can see, baseball can sure be quite the healer.