Allow me to introduce you to your new favorite team. Its players won't win the World Series or reach the Hall of Fame, but you'll never root harder for another ball club, or feel prouder to do so. The shortstop is missing his right foot, taken by a land mine in Afghanistan. One of the outfielders swings the bat like a one-handed tennis backhand because the grenade that hit his armored vehicle in Iraq blew off his right arm up to the shoulder. Some teams use Patriots as a nickname; these guys are the real thing.
Every member of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team is a war veteran who sacrificed a part of himself in Afghanistan or Iraq. Before they were in the military they were high school or college baseball players, and they have fought through devastating injuries and exhausting, sometimes excruciating rehabilitation to make it back from the battlefield to the ball field. In the process they are proving to everyone, including themselves, that despite missing limbs they are still the same focused, physically capable men they have always been. "It's a new normal," says former Army Spc. Matt Kinsey, 26, the shortstop. "We're getting a second chance to be athletes, to do things that we thought we'd never be able to do again. And I think we're doing it at a pretty high level."
Opponents—the Wounded Warriors play only able-bodied teams—would attest to that. In the Warriors' first game, in May, they crushed a team from the FBI 35--10 at George Mason University, prompting the FBI team's coach and third baseman, Joe Walsh, to marvel, "They are studs. I expected them to commit some errors, but they were flawless." So far they've split six games as they barnstorm the Southeast, playing squads from police and fire departments, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military teams. "I think teams might underestimate us a little bit at first," says pitcher Josh Wege, 22, a Marine lance corporal who lost both of his lower legs in 2009 after his armored vehicle ran over a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. "But that doesn't last long."
It lasts only until a Wounded Warrior with a prosthetic leg, like third baseman Saul Bosquez, dives headfirst into second base on a double, or a one-armed outfielder, like Nate Lindsey, catches a fly, flips the ball back into the air as he drops his glove, then snags it with his bare hand to fire it back into the infield. Says their coach, David Van Sleet, "Some of these guys run so well that if they wore long pants instead of shorts, you would never know they had prosthetics."
July 3, 2011
Every player has a horrific tale to tell. Kinsey lost so much blood after stepping on the land mine that he needed two full transfusions. Doctors performed so many surgeries on Bosquez after he lost his leg in an armored vehicle explosion that he can't remember the exact number. "High teens or low 20s," he says. Wege recalls feeling choked by dirt and sand after the explosion that cost him both his legs. "I was in shock, so the pain didn't set in right away," he says. "Then I looked down and saw that my legs were shredded."
It was the soldier in each Wounded Warrior that kept him from self-pity, and it was the competitor within that motivated him to see how much of his physical skill he could regain. "Whatever part of your body you lost, you're not going to grow it back," says Kinsey. "So we don't really sit around feeling bad about what happened to us. We chose to just get on with it."
Van Sleet, a prosthetics program manager with the Department of Veteran Affairs, was looking for that kind of attitude when he dreamed up the idea for the team last fall. He had been working with prosthetics and severely injured veterans for more than 30 years and coaching and playing softball just as long when he realized his two interests could be a natural fit. He put out a call through the VA for prospective players and wound up with more than 200 candidates, 20 of whom were invited to a five-day tryout at the University of Arizona, from which he culled a 15-man roster. The current team is made up of 10 Army vets and five Marines, all of whom have had leg, foot or arm amputations.
"We have about $2 million worth of prosthetics on this team," Van Sleet says. The prosthetics are custom-made for each player, many with pneumatic springs in the heel and titanium joints that simulate the rotation of human knees, ankles and elbows. Some players use curved, lightweight flexible replacements for their feet that offer increased cushioning when they run. But while the quality of the Wounded Warriors' play has earned them respect, it's the quality of their effort and the depth of their sacrifice that have earned them admiration.
Considering what they've given for their country, is it any wonder that so many people want to give them something back? Louisville Slugger has provided more than $20,000 worth of equipment. A fan who won $1,200 in a raffle at the FBI game donated it to the team. The Nationals have invited them to play at Nationals Stadium in September against a Washington-area team still to be determined. (For further information, go to woundedwarrioramputeesoftballteam.org.)
"People have treated us so well," Kinsey says. "We just want to thank everyone for all they've done." Imagine that. After all they've given, these guys want to thank us. Now, I ask you: Who's your favorite team?
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Opponents might dismiss them, but that lasts only until a Wounded Warrior with a prosthetic leg dives headfirst into second base on a double.