Amputee war vets are a hit at softball
The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team lines up for the national anthem before an exhibition game. in Plant City, Fla.
Share with others:
PLANT CITY, Fla.
When a roadside bomb in Afghanistan shredded Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Wege's legs in 2009, the former high school baseball star wondered if he would even survive -- let alone walk, run or play ball again.
But on a recent Saturday afternoon, a crowd at a Tampa-area stadium watched him drill a pitch from former U.S. Olympic softballer Jennie Finch over an outfielder's head and use his high-tech prosthetic legs to run out a triple -- finishing with a belly-flop slide into third base. His Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team crushed an all-star squad that included former pro and college players, 23-8.
Mr. Wege, 22, plays first base for the barnstorming bunch of Army and Marine combat veterans, most of whom rely on prosthetic limbs. Corporate sponsorships have allowed the team to travel around the country playing local teams for charity, amassing a 14-13 record.
All of the infielders are missing at least one of their legs. Two of the outfielders use those special carbon-fiber running legs, the ones that look like upside-down question marks, for speed. One outfielder is missing a hand, and the right-fielder plays without his entire left arm and shoulder.
His name is Greg Reynolds, and after most Wounded Warrior losses he challenges the toughest dude on the other team to a push-ups contest. He lets opponents use both arms, but the 27-year-old Massachusetts native has only lost once. Seventy is his record.
"There is no better feeling than to get on the field and have people think, 'You can't play, you only have one arm,' " says Mr. Reynolds, a former soldier who survived a harrowing tour of duty in Iraq only to lose his limb in a motorcycle accident back home. "But watch me play. Watch me play. Watch what I do."
They play slow-pitch softball, but this is not your casual Thursday night beer league. And the in-your-face nature of their disabilities doesn't inspire pity or sympathy -- at least not after they start punishing the ball, flying around the bases and making highlight-reel plays in the field.
"The first time we got to see him play with these incredible ballplayers, I couldn't see the field because I was crying too much," says Dave Wege, Josh's father, a Lutheran school principal in Waucousta, Wis. "It was such an emotional thing because at that point we knew that Josh was not only back, he was stronger than before in so many ways."
Coach David Van Sleet, who worked in prosthetics for the military for 30 years, started the team 10 months ago and retired in December to manage it full time. He got some players from a tryout at the University of Arizona and picked up others along the way, relying on word of mouth at the Veterans Affairs hospitals and rehab centers.
The team travels with 11 players who proudly wear around $2 million worth of prosthetic limbs, and no matter the weather they won't wear long pants. They want fans -- particularly those with disabilities -- to see they are different, but just as good.
First Published January 21, 2012 12:00 am