Taking the field with wounded warriors
By Gary Cameron
The night before I was to head to central New York state to cover the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team for a Memorial Day weekend story, I played a double-header on my own softball team.
As I slid into third base, the opponent’s third baseman’s knee, and my rib cage, met with enough force to make us both wince and hit the ground hard.
The next morning, as I packed for the three-day trip, the pain persisted to the point that it made me wonder how I was going to carry gear and work long days. My second thought was: “Gary, you are such a frigging wimp.” How could I worry about any personal pain while covering a softball team comprised of U.S. Army and Marine veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that have lost numerous limbs, gone through agonizing rehab, fought off mental demons, and yet play the game as hard as any team I have ever seen, with so much less?
Approaching the first practice session on a game day in Binghamton, New York, I immediately saw that these men were not interested in a pity party or a mere “feel good” effort. Team manager David Van Sleet, who also organizes the team’s operation and tours, barked out to every player, demanding hustle, 100% effort, and perfection- tough criticism and full encouragement were often in the same command.
Coach Bucky Weaver ran the team through countless drills, with lots of stress on outfield communication, hitting the cut-off man, and throwing to the right base. Sarcasm, insults and self-deprecating insults are all part of the team.
Not everyone on the Wounded Warrior team has lost a leg, or both legs, or a foot. Outfielder Greg Reynolds has both legs, but no left arm from the shoulder down.
This makes for a challenging approach when he catches a ball in the outfield and has to throw it in. After catching the ball, Reynolds flips his glove up, the ball pops out, he catches it in mid-air with his right hand, and throws it in. All within an instant and not unlike former MLB pitcher Jim Abbott.
If fellow outfielder Todd Reed, 51, the oldest player on the team is near Reynolds on the play, Reynolds merely flips the ball out of his glove to Reed, who relays it in. Reed, a single leg amputee from the Persian Gulf War, is often called “Dad” because of his senior status and is an amazing hitter. In the Binghamton game, he went five for five with two triples, two doubles, and a single. In the Cooperstown game, one of his hits on Doubleday Field struck the outfield wall, over 300 feet away on a much larger HARDBALL diamond.
Greg Reynolds also bats with the only arm he has, putting all of his body into his swing. As one of the faster players on the team, he hustles on everything. In the game in Binghamton, I saw him dive for a shallow pop up in the outfield. He caught it, but the impact of hitting the ground knocked the ball out of his glove.
In the Cooperstown, New York game the next day at Abner Doubleday field, Reynolds raced down to first base after hitting an infield ground ball. Opposing first baseman Jim Tallman, Cooperstown’s Fire Chief, fielded the ball. Unfortunately, both men reached first base at the same time; one attempting to be safe on a ground ball and one trying to record an out. The impact was tremendous, and both men went sprawling through the air.
Reynolds was out on the play, but never went down. Tallman was not as fortunate. His own rescue squad carried him off in a cart with a broken ankle that will require surgery. That’s how hard the Wounded Warrior team plays. They do not want or expect any pity; just an opponent who plays as hard and with respect.
Left fielder Nick Clark is truly the hot dog on the team. He plays to the crowd when he comes up to bat. And in practice, he always demands more fly balls to work on his throws to the infield. While most of the team are still kids at heart, it is Clark who reaches out to children in the stands, giving constant high-fives and breaking the ice with people hesitant to approach an amputee.
It was easy to see the athleticism that all of these men still carry, and possessed before their battlefield injuries. Third baseman Saul Bosquez, avoiding a sliding opponent in the Cooperstown game, jumped high into the air on a force play, and came crashing down on the base runner. On an earlier play, Bosquez, a single amputee, leapt high into the air to snag a line drive down the third base line. Both plays were stunning, regardless of how many limbs the fielder had or was missing.
Then there is second baseman Bobby McCardle, a former Marine. Bobby is somewhat new to the team, and does not have a state-of-the art prosthesis that the other players have. Missing most of his right leg from the knee down, Bobby was constantly applying duct tape (yes, gray, hardware store duct tape) to his prosthesis to find the right balance while on the field.
Ever the perfectionist, McCardle was still tweaking and adjusting after the second game in two days. Between innings on hot days, all the players are constantly removing their prosthesis and drying off sweat that causes discomfort and slipping.
In the Cooperstown game I saw how all of these men, especially Manager Van Sleet and outfielder Clark, while wanting to win, still realize the bigger role they play as representatives of the Wounded Warriors.
A local boy, nine-year old Scott Fura, was introduced to the crowd and served as the team’s batboy. The connection was obvious; Scott had lost his right arm recently in a lawn tractor accident. Van Sleet had the little boy at his side constantly. Scott was invited on the team bus for lunch, talking about baseball and softball, and Van Sleet made every effort to include him as part of the team. The little boy was introduced to the crowd during team introductions. In the dugout, you could see how Scott really opened up. He went from being somewhat intimidated and shy to a cheering fan and teammate. Scott told Van Sleet and myself between innings, “This is the first time I feel like no one is staring at me. All these guys are just like me. I really like that.”
In the last inning, with the Wounded Warrior team well in front of Cooperstown, Van Sleet called for a time out. Nick Clark was on second base after hitting a double.
“Scott, get in there,” ordered Van Sleet. The little boy was confused. “Get in there; replace Nick at second base.” And with the unbridled glee that only a nine-year old could possess while playing with the big kids, Scott Fura took over at second base as a Wounded Warriors’ base runner. Moments later, teammate Saul Bosquez, with two outs, hit a long triple to score the little boy.
My rib cage had stopped hurting a long time ago.