In the spring of 2016, Hopewell Valley Central High School freshman Liam Cleary tore up Colonial Valley Conference pitching to the tune of a .357 batting average and the word throughout the county was “Can’t wait to see him when he’s a senior.”
That talk didn’t subside after three seasons, when he emerged with a career average of .430 and had won ample awards and been on numerous All-This or All-That teams.
Unfortunately, that senior year never came; on the baseball field, at least.
It was Apr. 6 against Hamilton West. Cleary dug in at the plate when a pitch came up and in, and he went down.
“Third game of the season, and I got hit in my temple,” he recalled. “It got like, half my helmet and half on my head. I was definitely stunned but I actually ran to first. I started seeing black lines as I ran.”
The diagnosis was a concussion — the fifth in his young life. Some came from sports, others came from off-the-field accidents. The initial diagnosis was day-to-day. Then it became week-to-week.
Finally, with about a quarter of the season remaining, Cleary was told he wouldn’t wear a Bulldogs uniform again.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch, sitting through that season,” he said. “I wasn’t even allowed to sit in the dugout. So I hid out in the outfield for some of those games. But it was tough.”
Nor was he allowed to face pitching, but…
“I was trying keep up my hitting,” he said. “I just couldn’t stop. So I’ve been hitting for a long time before I came back.”
The results have been apparent. After the agony of sitting on the sidelines, Cleary returned to play his first season of American Legion baseball with Hopewell Post 339, and he hasn’t missed a beat.
With two games remaining in the regular season (and Hopewell nursing a one-game lead in first place), Cleary was hitting a robust .413 with seven doubles and 17 RBI. Each figure was second on the team to Andy Blake. Aside from just the numbers themselves, Cleary’s presence has had a ripple effect throughout the lineup.
“He lost his senior year of high school, which was really a shame, but now he’s become a tremendous part of our team,” Post 339 manager Mike Coryell said. “He’s been swinging a good bat. He’s that buffer in the middle of the lineup and it just pushes everybody down one and all of a sudden our lineup goes from being solid at one through seven to one through eight or nine. We’ve got hitters up and down the lineup, there’s no pressure on any one person to get it done.”
Hopewell leftfielder Cole Hare, who bats behind Cleary, said he could feel Liam’s pain at sitting out.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine it.”
Nor could he imagine Post 339 without him, as he call’s Cleary’s presence “Huge.”
“It’s good to have another piece of the puzzle,” Hare continued. “Having him just adds to our capabilities of going to the World Series. Him missing an entire season was absolutely tough. But he didn’t miss a beat. He came right back, and in our first game he got two hits. A kid like that, with the talent he has and the ability he has, it’s great he’s playing again. He’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And I’m not just saying that because he’s one of my closest friends. I just wish him well. It was a tough situation, but he responded to it like no one else could.”
Hopewell general manager Mike Olshin has nothing but respect for what Cleary has done.
“It’s a great story,” Olshin said. “He had all that frustration, and now he’s come back and is playing with us for the first time. And the bigger the spot, the better he hits for us.”
Coryell adds that he encourages his teammates to take good, healthy cuts. “He’s a big kid at heart, he just loves being here. He’s really melded well with the other guys,” he said.
It has been a return to good times for Cleary, who will embark on his college career at Mercer in the fall.
“I feel back to normal,” he said. “I feel like I’m hitting as well as I hit before and I think I’ve been hitting pretty well.”
Asked if he was squeamish when he first got back in the box, Cleary laughed and said, “Actually, no. I just don’t like when people are throwing at my head.”
One thing is certain. After being forced to sit out the sport that Cleary calls “The biggest thing in my life,” he certainly appreciates it even more after it was taken away from him.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “Every single day, every single pitch I’m just so glad to be back. And it’s nice playing legion (as opposed to showcase ball). You just play baseball and you’re not worrying about a bunch of scouts watching you hit. It’s just focusing, and you do your thing. It’s fun again.”