Hundreds catch Wounded Warriors charity game in Washington


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When Daniel Lasko chases down an outfield fly ball, the Marine Corps veteran from Bethlehem, Pa., sometimes forgets that one of the legs propelling him was lost below the knee to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2004.

"It feels like I have two limbs until somebody comes up to me and says 'Thank you for your service,' " said Mr. Lasko, 30, fitted since with a prosthetic that he seems to use with ease. "To me, it feels like I don't even have an injury when I'm out there playing with these guys."

The "guys" he refers to are -- like himself -- members of the national Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a group of highly athletic veterans and active duty soldiers who lost limbs after 9/11 while serving their country.

They travel the nation playing games, tournaments and celebrity matches, and on Saturday, they stopped in Washington, Pa., for a doubleheader against officers of State Correctional Institutions in Pittsburgh and Greene County.

The charity event attracted several hundred spectators to Lew Hays Pony Field. It helped draw attention to work done by Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, a not-for-profit organization that assists homeless, poor and middle-class veterans and their families.

The 20 team members play in about 100 games a year and have become a symbol of perseverance, both because of their impressive skills on the field and their positive attitude off of it.

Some, like Mr. Lasko, have had more than a dozen surgeries. Some are multiple amputees.

Yet they dive after fly balls and swing bats with such authority the games are truly competitive.

Last week, the team played at Fenway Park against a squad of police, firefighters and medics who were among the first responders to April's Boston Marathon terrorist bombing. The team has shared the field with celebrities ranging from "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak (he played shortstop) to Major League Baseball star Johnny Damon.

On Saturday, one of the opposing players stepping to the plate was famed Steelers running back Rocky Bleier.

The team's roots can be traced to a series of sports camps for disabled veterans, initially funded by a congressional grant, said David Van Sleet, who organized the players and is now their general manager. The players in many cases had excelled in their childhood in various sports from football to wrestling and -- of course -- baseball.

"All we wanted was afterwards for these guys to go back to their hometowns and maybe join a softball league or whatever, but there was a core there that said 'We want this to go forward,' " Mr. Van Sleet said.

So with corporate and other fundraising, the traveling team was created. Its size means members can miss games if they have work or other commitments.

Some juggle the scheduled games with work and other personal commitments. Mr. Lasko, for one, is studying criminal justice at Kutztown University under the GI Bill.

On Saturday, the players darted across the field under bright sunshine while volunteers served up refreshments and sold raffle tickets.

Former Pirates broadcaster Lanny Frattare, who announced the doubleheader (which the teams split), marveled at the athleticism he saw, including a diving catch of a fly ball by second baseman Matias Ferreira, 24, a bilateral below-knee amputee who stepped on a 30-pound improvised explosive device while on patrol as a Marine in Afghanistan in 2011.

The catch, said Mr. Frattare, who now teaches at Waynesburg University, "was spectacular."

But the player himself called it nothing more than the kind of play anyone on the team is capable of making. "You see a ball coming and you dive for it," he said. "I don't think it was very special."

Mr. Ferreira, who grew up in Atlanta, also broke his pelvis and shattered his femur and required more than 30 surgeries.

Among those watching Saturday from the bleachers was Lisa Kneeland, 47, an elementary school teacher from Rosedale, Ind., who traveled with her family from that state to see one of the players, Matthew Kinsey, whom she has known since he was a child.

She talked what it means to overcome such adversity.

"When something like this happens, things could go one of two ways," she said.

One way is giving up. The other way is embodied by those including Mr. Kinsey, 28, shortstop who has moved on with his life and is engaged to be married. "Anyone with aches and pains should walk away feeling they have nothing to complain about," she said.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Robert L. Davis, 51, a Marine from New Castle, who lost a leg to cancer and threw out the ceremonial first pitch at one of Saturday's games. Mr. Davis, a case manager with Veterans Leadership Program, watched from the bleachers and smiled at the sight of the young men with similar disabilities -- having lost an arm or a leg -- competing intensely.

"It's very encouraging to see," he said.

region - neigh_washington

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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