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Jim Kenyon: ‘A Fact of
Editor’s note: The article below was submitted by David Van
Sleet, general manager of the Louisville Slugger Warriors, who will be
competing in week one of our MSBL World Series in Phoenix, Arizona. The article was written by journalist Jim
Kenyon and initially published in the Valley News, West Lebanon, New Hampshire
Wednesday, October 11, 2017 by - Jim Kenyon, Valley News
In everything I’ve read online about Luke
Mayer — from his days of playing college baseball in California to his
achievements at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine — there’s no mention of
Just the way Mayer, now a second-year medical
school student, wants it.
"I’ve never seen myself as having a
disability,” said Mayer, who grew up in Hartland and graduated from Hartford
High School in 2010. "It’s no reason to treat me any differently.”
Mayer was 3 years old when he was diagnosed
with retinoblastoma, a rare type of eye cancer that usually develops in early
childhood. To prevent the cancer from spreading, Mayer’s right eye was removed.
At first, his parents, Chris Mayer and Mary
Grondin, couldn’t help but be a tad overprotective. Who could blame them?
Particularly when Luke’s two older brothers
broke out the archery set in the backyard. "My parents didn’t even want me
playing badminton,” he said, speaking of their fear that he’d injure his "good
As strange as it sounds, the artificial eye
(ocular prosthesis is the technical term) required more of an adjustment on his
parents’ part than from him. "It certainly hasn’t held him back,” Chris Mayer
told me. "The blessing, which was hard to understand at the time, was that he
was only 3. He didn’t care that he had only one eye. It was all he knew.”
In high school, Mayer played baseball, soccer
and basketball. (In 2010, the Valley News wrote a feature
story about him overcoming his disability to play three sports.) At Claremont
McKenna College, a Division III school outside of Los Angeles, he made more
than 40 appearances as a relief pitcher.
Mayer wore impact-resistant goggles while participating
in sports. It’s a habit, he confesses, that he’s fallen out of playing pick-up
basketball in med school.
But he’ll dust them off this weekend when he
returns to the diamond in Arizona.
Mayer, 25, was selected to play for Team
Louisville Slugger at the Men’s Senior Baseball League’s World Series in Arizona. More than 340 teams will compete, but Team Louisville Slugger (any
guess on who’s a major sponsor of the club?) is one of a kind.
Its roster is comprised of players with
physical disabilities, including eight military veterans who suffered combat
injuries. Four players have a prosthesis below the knee and three others have a
Former Major Leaguer Curtis Pride, who is
deaf, is the manager. Pride spent parts of 11 seasons with six teams, including
the Boston Red Sox, before retiring in 2006.
How did the team find Mayer?
That’s where David Van Sleet, the team’s
general manager, comes in. From 1991 to 2006, Van Sleet lived in Norwich, where
he ran his own company called Ocular Prosthetics that made artificial eyes.
After Mayer’s surgery, he was sent to Van
Sleet to be fitted. Van Sleet has moved around — heading up the VA medical
system’s prosthetic units in New England and later the Southwest — but stayed
in touch with Mayer and his parents over the years.
Now living in Florida, Van Sleet found himself
in charge of fielding a team of players with physical disabilities for the Men’s Senior Baseball League’s 30th annual anniversary showcase this month.
He used his VA contacts to recruit players
from across the country. It wasn’t hard. With Louisville Slugger, the Men’s
Senior Baseball League and Hanger Inc., a Texas-based prosthetics company, on
board as major sponsors, Van Sleet could offer each athlete an
all-expenses-paid trip to play in Arizona’s spring training parks.
Van Sleet rounded out the roster with current
and former college players. Parker Hanson, who was born without a left hand, is
the team’s ace. Hanson, who pitches for the University of Minnesota-Crookston,
possesses a 90 mph fastball, bringing back memories of Jim Abbott, who was born
without a right hand and went on to toss a no-hitter for the New York Yankees
"I was going for the best players that I could
find,” Van Sleet told me over the phone. "They all love baseball, and they all
excelled at it.”
Mayer being no exception. But when Van Sleet
contacted him, Mayer said he’d have to decline the offer to play in the
week-long tournament. He couldn’t afford to miss classes.
The tournament also fell at the same time that Mayer, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, starts his Albert Schweitzer
Fellowship. He’s among 27 medical school and law school students in Vermont and
New Hampshire selected this year to work with community-based health and social
service organizations. The fellowship, named after the 1953 Nobel Prize
laureate, is taking Mayer back to Hartford High. He’ll work with students,
taking them on field trips, to "get them engaged in science,” Mayer said.
After telling Van Sleet that he couldn’t miss classes
for a week, Mayer figured that was the end of it. But Van Sleet had an idea:
Come out for the tournament’s first weekend.
Mayer could swing that. On Saturday, he flies
to Arizona, landing in time for the team’s evening practice. Like everyone else
on the squad, he’ll be meeting his teammates, who hail from a dozen states, for
the first time.
To get ready, he’s been playing long toss with
a med school roommate. Good thing. Van Sleet has penciled in Mayer to start the
team’s second game on Sunday.
Compared with some of his new teammates, Mayer
figures he’s had it easy. "There are guys on this team pitching with one arm,”
he said. "Having one eye was just a fact of life. It never figured into
He refuses to allow his disability to change
the way he lives, or doing what he enjoys. Did I mention his skateboarding?