By Larry Paladino, Detroit MSBL
They’re not called Warriors for nothing.
The Louisville Slugger Warriors National Amputee Baseball Team is, as you might expect, composed of players who have disabilities of one kind or another. Many are military veterans who have lost limbs in combat. Others, perhaps, were born without an arm, or hand. All ignore whatever it is that others would consider debilitating, as can be witnessed by watching them play baseball at an elite level, leveling talented amateur opponents in their inspiring exhibition games across the country.
Take this past Labor Day weekend as an example. The team, which features players from throughout the country, assembled in the Detroit suburb of Troy to take on two select teams from the Detroit Senior Baseball League in a doubleheader at the Stevens Family Complex. It, coincidentally, is named “Warrior Park” because the parochial school’s nickname is the “Warriors.”
“To some people we’re warriors, it doesn’t matter about our disabilities,” said 25-year-old outfielder Parker Hanson of Sioux Falls, S.D., an ex-pro who was born without a left hand and has been playing on the team for six years (it was a softball team a number of years before that). His missing appendage “is not a disability, it’s an ABILITY,” he said. Like with his teammates, it has forced him to adjust accordingly and succeed exceedingly. He also gives motivational speeches. (Every player on the team has an interesting story to tell if there were the time and space.)
Jim Abbott, a former University of Michigan pitcher who became a standout in the Major Leagues from 1989 to 1999, served as an inspiration to Hanson, he said, and undoubtedly to others in the same situation. Abbott was born without a right hand but starred as a pitcher at Flint Central High School in Michigan, and was a football quarterback, as well. He even pitched a no-hitter when he was with the Yankees in 1993 and Abbott’s own words mirror the attitude of the Warriors: “As a kid, I really wanted to fit in. Sports became a way for me to gain acceptance. I think it fueled my desire to succeed.”
The Detroit MSBL players witnessed that desire first hand, losing the first game of the twin bill 8-3 and the second 16-4, with plenty of seniors in the stands, brought out on buses from American House assisted living facilities, whose founder, Bob Gillette, sponsored the trip. Their pitcher in that opening game was 37-year-old Matt Kinsey, who lost a leg in the Army in Afghanistan.
Among the highlights of the second game was a three-run homer by Derek Holcomb, a below-the-knee amputee from Little Rock, Ark. After that blast, Shan Donovan, a 22-year-old one-armed catcher from Fargo, N.D., held a bat in his right arm and poked a single to center field. That elicited shouts of joy from his teammates and knocked the 80-year-old pitcher as well from the mound.
(The pitcher, himself, a Vietnam combat vet who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has other disabilities that can’t be seen). The Detroit team featured players from all its age divisions, including a number of veterans, batting everyone in the order and using different pitchers every inning. The teams posed for pictures and there were television news crews out, as well.
“I was honored that the LS Warriors chose to come to Detroit,” said Mike Juliano, president of the Detroit MSBL and member of its national hall of fame. “The LS Warriors are amazing. I can’t begin to imagine what they must have gone through during their deployment or, for the non-veterans, just in coping with their disabilities growing up. They are true heroes.”
Juliano’s one regret is “I could not invite everyone to play in the two games. I wish everyone in our league would have been able to participate.” After the games, Juliano presented the team with a $2,500 check on behalf of the Detroit MSBL.
Donovan may get the most attention at such games. While prosthetic limbs on other players can’t be seen under their uniforms, it’s clear to fans that Donovan’s left arm is missing. He catches the fastest of fastballs and curving-est of curve balls and somehow flips the ball up from his mitt, throws the mitt off, catches the ball in his right hand, and throws it back to the pitcher. He was born with his handicap but wasted no time learning baseball.
“I started catching in middle school and high school,” he said, “and was a starter beginning in eighth grade.” (Almost as an homage to history, Donovan’s pinch-hit came on the 96th anniversary of the 4,189th and final hit of legendary player Ty Cobb in a pinch-hitting role – and on the 56th anniversary of singer Donovan hitting No. 1 on the music charts with “Sunshine Superman”.)
The general manager of the Warriors is David Van Sleet and the coaches are both ex-Major Leaguers: Curtis Pride and Len Whitehouse. Van Sleet said humor keeps his guys loose and they don’t mind joking about each other. If, say, someone falls down it wouldn’t be unusual for someone to shout “incoming” or some such. While the war veterans on the squad may suffer from PTSD, they’re all in the same boat, so to speak, and joking about it is a way to cope – as is playing the sport they’ve learned to love.
Pride, who coaches the baseball team at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which educates hearing impaired students, was born deaf due to rubella infection. An outfielder, he played in the majors for Montreal, Detroit, Boston, Atlanta, the New York Yankees, and California Angels. He was the first deaf player in the majors since 1945. “These players are a huge inspiration,” he said of the Warriors.
Said Whitehouse, “We’re dealing with human beings and that’s the biggest challenge. We don’t have to prod them to play.” Whitehouse was a relief pitcher for the Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins. He struck Reggie Jackson out, for Jackson’s 2,000th career K.
Besides the famous bat company in Louisville, other major sponsors are Wilson Sporting Goods, DeMarini, and Evo Shield. The Detroit trip was sponsored by Gillette’s company, GM Van Sleet said. Gillette lives in the Detroit area but has a second home in Estero, Fla., where Van Sleet is a neighbor.
The team plays exhibitions and tournaments several times a year, including in Las Vegas and Phoenix, where the MSBL regularly has events. The association’s World Series is each fall in Phoenix. With players from all over the country, “the travel logistics, oh my God,” said Van Sleet, who booked a hotel near the ballpark for the Detroit games, which were nine innings each – and temperatures in the low 90s. Everyone, though, seemed to find the event pretty cool.