TAMPA — When summoned in late innings at home games, University of Tampa closer Dalton Ross typically takes the field to the nation’s most ironic walkout music.
“Bad Company” by American heavy-metal outfit Five Finger Death Punch.
“I didn’t even make the connection until (a teammate) made a joke,” the 6-foot-4 senior said with a chuckle.
Five fingers? Ross’ right hand, the one that has crafted an all-conference career for one of the nation’s elite Division II programs, hasn’t brandished that many in more than a half-dozen years. All the spin, torque and movement is mustered by the middle and ring fingers.
The index one — or at least the top two-thirds of it — was lost in a construction-site accident only weeks prior to his high school senior season. At the time, that table saw severed more than a digit; it slit Ross’ psyche.
“There was one moment when I had told my dad that I wasn’t even going to try to play baseball,” Ross said in his mild southeast Georgia drawl.
Perspective was reattached via improvisation, faith and resilience. Today, Ross wields a sidearm fastball — call it the consummate split-finger — that reaches 90 mph, and a slider that typically coaxes ground balls or futile swings from right-handed batters.
“He throws his fastball with his middle fingers, which I had never seen before,” longtime Spartans pitching coach and former Yankees hurler Sam Militello said. “If I tried to do that, I don’t know where the ball would go. And to have the grip strength to do that is impressive.”
So are his numbers. A first-team All-Sunshine State Conference pick last year, Ross entered the final weekend of the regular season with a team-high four saves, a 2.34 ERA (lowest among Spartans pitchers with at least 25 innings) and 24 strikeouts in 30⅔ innings.
“I think it’s changed my pitching style and who I am personally, who I am as a competitor,” he said. “Completely changed me into a better version of myself.”
Coping and compensating
Raised in Statesboro, Georgia, Ross had been seriously pitching only a year or so when fate would force him to forever alter his mechanics. In his last day at his offseason construction job — Dec. 30, 2016 — he was cutting pieces of decorative trim for a front-porch column.
“I had made the cut probably 25 times already, and this one board I saw had a knot in it,” Ross recalled. ”So I was like, ‘All right, we’re going to go slow through it.’”
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The collision of blade and knot created a whiplash effect that snatched the board from Ross and essentially took his right finger with it. He explained the ensuing seconds as dreamlike — a dull pain followed by a rush of adrenaline. As the top half of his index finger dangled by a piece of skin, he found an old ski mask to suppress the bleeding.
He remained conscious in the passenger seat of his red 2004 Ford F150 pickup as a co-worker drove him roughly 30 minutes to the nearest hospital.
“I just thought about, ‘I’ll probably never throw a baseball again,’” he said. ”That was pretty much my only thought the whole time.”
Ross was in the emergency room when his parents, Tony and Mary Allison Ross, arrived. As his folks’ initial hysteria subsided, the sick feeling over the accident’s long-term repercussions didn’t. Tony found a quiet, solitary spot to pray for the oldest of his two boys.
“I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what your plans are for this son of mine, but whatever you do, please don’t take baseball from him right now,’” Tony recalled. “Because I knew what baseball meant for him for his senior season.”
After roughly three hours in the emergency room, the orthopedic surgeon — a friend of Tony’s — laid out two options: remove the dangling finger, stitch up the remaining nub, and allow it to heal; or head immediately to Macon, where a specialist might be able to reattach it.
Ross was transported via helicopter to Macon, roughly 120 miles away. When his parents arrived, the doctor informed them the procedure was going well. Roughly 30 minutes later, he returned to say the efforts to reattach had failed.
In hindsight, Ross considers it a blessing. A reattachment would have kept him sidelined for his senior season, and even then, there was no guarantee it would remain viable for the long term. As it stood, he was permitted to try throwing after the stitches were removed from what remained of the finger.
“That was two weeks later,” he said. “And if it had gotten put back on, it would’ve been months and months.”
Ross describes the first attempts at pitching as “demoralizing.” The process was painful, and blood seeped from the stitches. He fulfilled his goal of starting on the mound in Statesboro High’s opener, but he struggled with his command, and the bleeding forced the balls to be changed out frequently. Even worse, the opponent began bunting on him at will.
“He’d go to pick up the ball, and he’d leave it on the ground because he was used to that finger being there,” Tony said. “So they bunted him to death.”
Though his performance gradually improved that season as he adopted a sidearm style, Ross called it a “dark time for me personally.” A teetotaler to that point, he said he began attending parties and experimenting with alcohol as a coping mechanism. By early spring, he had informed his dad he no longer wanted to pursue a college baseball career.
“And I said, ‘Man, you’re still healing,’” said Tony, a retired electrical engineer. “‘You’re only three or four months into this injury, there’s still a lot of baseball left, there’s a lot that can happen. There’s no need to make that decision now, let’s just kind of see what happens and where it goes.’”
A dream restored
About a week after that conversation, Tony got a cold-call from a man he’d never met. Mike Gilliam, whose Marietta-based company (Opportunities Through Athletics) helps connect possibly overlooked high school athletes to college opportunities, asked Tony if he could reach out to his son. After a lengthy conversation with Gilliam, Ross had a change of heart.
“He reignited Dalton’s dream,” Tony said.
Ross landed at Bryan College, an NAIA program in Dayton, Tennessee. He worked 63 innings in three seasons, striking out 122 in 102 innings. When his third season was cut short by the global pandemic in 2020, he found a spot with the Seminole County Snappers of the wooden-bat Orlando Collegiate League, which remained in operation that summer.
That’s where Spartans coach Joe Urso — whose son played on the same team — discovered him. In 19⅔ innings with the Snappers, Ross never allowed an earned run.
“What amazes me is how he’s able to command the ball without having the full finger, especially his slider is so good,” said Urso, whose team (37-9) recently clinched the program’s 23rd Sunshine State Conference title. “You would think you’re going to need those (three fingers) to throw that breaking ball, and he’s able to do it.”
Initially torn about moving from Bryan College because of the opportunity it had afforded him and the relationships he had forged, Ross nonetheless chose to transfer with the hopes of improving his chances of being noticed by pro scouts. After seven appearances in 2021, he led the Spartans with 25 appearances the following year, recording a team-best 11.76 strikeouts per nine innings.
“It’s a unique situation, and he’s somebody who’s taken advantage of it,” Militello said. “Didn’t sulk over it, went out and worked and figured out a way to continue to compete, and to me that’s just amazing.”
Call it a 4½-finger death punch to doubt and despair.
”He’s just an A-plus character kid, and trusted the process and trusted that God had a plan, and didn’t stop working,” Urso said. “I’m really proud of him.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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