Walking around the beach volleyball courts at last weekend’s AVP New York City Open at Hudson River Park, seven-foot-one Ryan Doherty seemed like the most obvious choice for a volleyball player. Long and lean with a standing reach that easily extends way over the net, Doherty appears to the casual observer that he’s spent a lifetime developing his volleyball skills. Little would they know that Doherty is a relative newcomer to the sport who only started playing once the door was closed on a burgeoning professional baseball career.
Doherty grew up in Toms River, New Jersey where baseball was king. A standout high school pitcher, he was a two-sport athlete at Toms River East until his senior year when he gave up basketball to focus solely on baseball. His inspiration for the decision came from newly minted Hall of Famer, Randy Johnson.
“I started to fall in love with baseball right around the time Randy Johnson was making a name for himself with the Mariners,” Doherty said to ESPN in 2002. “I had a hero for life.”
Doherty took his talents on a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame where he earned third-team All-American honors in 2004. Armed with a fastball in the low-90s and a release that put the ball seemingly on top hitters before it left his hand, Doherty was set on a path to the major leagues. He was so eager to get to the show that left Notre Dame before his senior year to sign as an undrafted free agent in 2005 with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Those long arms and legs will eventually be a consistent advantage because when he’s right, he’s actually releasing the ball closer to 50 feet from the plate, rather than the 52 or 54 feet most pitchers are releasing the ball from,” one scout remarked.
From the moment he stepped on the mound, Doherty made history. As the tallest player in professional baseball, he was determined to show the baseball world that he was more than a footnote in the record books. In his second professional season in 2006 with the South Bend Silver Hawks, he posted a 9–1 record with a 2.59 ERA. Based on his outstanding performance, the Diamondbacks moved him up to their advanced Class-A team in Visalia, California to start the 2007 season.
Surrounded by a team filled with heralded prospects, Doherty surely was on the right track. He spent time with his pitching idol Johnson, who was in Visalia rehabbing his way back to the major leagues, and he opened the season by pitching three scoreless innings. Heading out of the gate with a strong push, Doherty’s train came to a screeching halt. The Diamondbacks abruptly released him, saying they didn’t see him projecting as a major leaguer. Not a single major league organization reached out for his services. He finished the 2007 season with the independent River City Rascals of the Frontier League with his baseball career in the rearview mirror.
“I left the Diamondbacks organization and it wasn’t my choice; I was released,” Doherty said at the New York City AVP Open. “I basically was an ex-athlete all of a sudden. I wasn’t a baseball player and I was 24 years old.”
So how did Doherty, who never played beach volleyball in his life, start the transformation from a flame-throwing pitcher to stymieing his opponents in the sand?
“When I was living with a friend of mine [Steve Johnson] down in South Carolina, we just happened to find a beach volleyball court and I fell in love with the sport,” he said. “I played it as much as I possibly could. It was a new great competitive outlet for me. I decided that I wanted to play this every day as long as I can.”
Initially, Doherty struggled mightily, serving as easy fodder for all comers. Playing with Johnson on the beach, the two former baseball players were out of their league even against low-level amateurs on the sand.
“We were terrible,” Johnson said to Scott Stump in 2013. “Here we have a former D-I athlete and a former pro athlete, and we’re getting embarrassed by the worst players on the beach.”
Not one to be deterred by his early failures with the sport, Doherty was bit by the volleyball bug. In 2009 with only $5,000 to his name, he packed up his car and headed out to California with aspirations of making the professional tour. He made ends meet by delivering pizzas on a bicycle, managing the little money he had similarly to when he played in the minor leagues, making a dollar stretch in a variety of ways.
“I was very good at being poor from years of practice,” he said. “I didn’t have any money, but I knew that if I was going to play beach volleyball, I wasn’t going to do it for the money; I was going to do it because it is a great life. It’s something that would keep me engaged and passionate.”
With a work ethic born out of enduring the daily grind of a baseball season, Doherty hit the beach daily early in the morning to build his skill set. Once in awhile, he would get invited to play in high level games while working out at the beach because players didn’t show up. Despite his height (which earned him the nickname “Avatar”) being a tremendous asset in volleyball at the net, the many finesse areas of his game were lacking and easily exposed.
“It was definitely all of the skill aspects [that were hard to learn],” Doherty said. “Being seven feet tall, the height was easy — hitting, blocking, the serving. The things that were difficult were passing the ball, controlling sets, things like that. Those are the things that I have to work on much more than the others. Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of people willing to help me out and give me good advice, tips, and tricks. After a lot of practice reps, I’m able to say that I can now compete with most of the guys on those skill aspects. I’m not going to be the best ball control guy on the beach, but I’ve gotten much better and I still think I can improve in those areas.”
Two players who were instrumental in helping Doherty advance quickly in the sport were Olympic Gold Medalist Todd Rogers, and tour veteran Casey Patterson. Patterson took Doherty under his wing in 2012, and together they made the volleyball world take notice when the pair upset Rogers and Phil Dalhausser in the finals of the National Volleyball League tournament in Baltimore.
Rogers shortly parted ways with Dalhausser and picked up Doherty as his partner for the 2013 season. Rogers, whom Doherty compared to Cal Ripken Jr. with his skill, knowledge, and longevity, mentored him with the hopes of tuning up his game the same way he did with his former Olympic partner Dalhausser.
“Phil and I had gone our separate ways after the 2012 season, and I needed a new big guy,” Rogers said to Stump in 2013. “Ryan was the biggest on the block. I also wanted to work with a guy that needed to be taught, as I enjoy the coaching aspect of the game. I had taught Phil everything I knew, and I missed coaching. Ryan was a perfect fit for me.”
As Doherty progressed in his new sport, he carried the bulldog mentality that he had on the mound to the sand, when he would force feed hitters a steady diet 90-mile-per-hour fastballs and sloping curveballs until they showed they could make an adjustment. On the court he has applied that mantra to his offensive approach.
“One of my smartest baseball coaches said, ‘Don’t change anything until they show you they can beat it.’ That’s what I took into volleyball,” Doherty said. “If I am swinging to the high deep middle of the court and that ball goes down, I’m going to keep swinging there until somebody does something to where it doesn’t work. I’ve had matches where I’ve swung to the same spot 15 times and that was the only spot I hit, but they didn’t defend it, so I’ll take it. That’s a smart thing for younger players, develop one thing so that they have to make an adjustment, and then you can go to your next. Don’t try to play a chess match if you can just play checkers.”
Sitting in the player’s tent in between matches, Doherty reflected on the opportunity to be able to play in front of his family and friends, with only 70 miles separating them from the venue. He hopes that the tour makes Manhattan a permanent stop due to its incredible atmosphere.
“The East Coast tournament is always my favorite one of the year just because my friends and family get a chance to come out,” he said. “Now that I live in California, I don’t get to see them nearly as much as I like. This New York City tournament has been fantastic so far; it’s one of the coolest backdrops to a beach volleyball tournament you’ve ever going to see. I’m really hoping that this one sticks around for awhile so that we can stay here many more years.”
Doherty and his partner John Mayer finished in second place in the NYC AVP Open, losing a highly contested match in the finals to the team of his former partner Patterson and Olympian Jake Gibb in three sets, 21–19, 15–21, 12–15. Their excellent showing only furthers the argument that Doherty and Mayer’s team are in contention for a spot in the 2016 Olympics. While Doherty feels that is a lofty goal due to the short time that they have played together, he’s not going to rule out the possibility of it happening.
“The 2016 Olympics are going to be very tough,” he said. “Johnny Mayer and I are in the 5th spot for the US and only two teams can go. … We just want to play and develop as a team. He’s a fantastic player. It’s our first year together; I think us trying to set an Olympics goal was a little out of reach considering how good all of the American teams are. Never say never, but we’re both going to be young enough that 2020 is not out of the picture.”