Wounded Warriors go to bat

Young amputees to benefit from May 31 fund-raiser


America's best and bravest are coming to town to play a little ball at Ned Skeldon Stadium. They’re really good. They play hard, the same way they fought for their country.

Oh, there’s that little problem with the amputations — an arm here, a leg there. But don’t tell these guys they’re disabled.

They’re the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. On May 31, they’ll play a triple-header at the old Mud Hens ball park in Maumee. They’ll square off against a team of local police officers and firefighters in the first game, take on an “all-star” team of local celebrities in the second game, and then, in the featured game of the day, battle a team of Detroit Tigers alumni.

Denny McLain, Mickey Stanley, Tom Matchick, Tom Timmerman, and “class clown” Jon Warden are among the former Tigers who’ve said they’ll play, along with another former pro, Stan Clarke. Organizers expect to hear from others. University of Toledo football legend Chuck Ealey has been invited to participate.

The former pros and the locals had better be ready. Their opponents certainly will be. They are used to winning. Two of them are still active-duty military. The rest are veterans.

All of them share a passion for getting on with their lives despite losing a limb on the battlefield. “Life without a limb,” their motto says, “is limitless.”

Their coach, David Van Sleet, is not an amputee, but an Army veteran who spent more than 30 years with the Department of Veterans Affairs, working in the development of prosthetic devices.

“I’d see these fellows come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I could tell they were athletes,” he said. “But they were sure they would never play sports again.”

So he founded the amputee softball team. “These are guys who could have gone the other way,” he said. “But softball gave them a second chance. Wait until you see them now. The camaraderie on this team is amazing.”

Leonard Anderson lost his left arm below the elbow and part of his right hand. He trains police K-9 dogs. Zach “Beef” Briseno lost both legs below the knee during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When he’s not traveling with the Warriors, he’s coaching his son’s baseball team.

Matias Ferreira runs on curved carbon-fiber blades like those worn by former Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius. Oh, and Mr. Ferreira, a Marine, is into skydiving and snowboarding. No limits. No boundaries.

Saul Bosquez is from Adrian. He lost part of his left leg to a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2007. He had played baseball all his life and was excited when tryouts for the Wounded Warriors were announced three years ago. He made the team.

“Everyone sees the physical part of what we do, but for me the mental part is just as important,” he said. Knowing he was not alone, he explained, was great therapy.

The Wounded Warriors travel the country, playing teams of able-bodied athletes to raise awareness that evolving prosthetic technology means amputees can still lead normal, productive lives. What these players do on a ball field will amaze you.

They hope to get their message across to kids who’ve lost a limb. Often they’ll recruit a local youngster who’s an amputee to serve as bat boy or bat girl.

They play roughly 100 games a year. So far, they’ve visited 75 cities in 28 states. This will be their first Toledo stop. The team has 25 players, although not all of them can make every engagement.

The team operates a kids’ camp for youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 who are missing a limb. Team members serve as coaches and mentors at the camp. The inaugural event was held last year in Orlando. This year’s camp will be in Louisville June 9-13.

A parade featuring the players will begin at 10 a.m. May 31 at Maumee High School and travel to Skeldon Stadium. The first game will start at 12:30 p.m., the second at 3:30, and the tussle with the Tigers at 7:30.

Admission to all the games technically is free, although donations will be sought. You’ll get a really warm feeling that you helped send an amputee child to camp.

Fifth Third Bank branches are accepting donations also. The Sylvania Senior Softball Association is serving as the official host, and the Mud Hens plan to promote the event on their scoreboard at Fifth Third Field.

Jim Henderson, of suburban Oregon, a Vietnam veteran and one of the local organizers, explains why he got involved: “The point is to convince kids who face these problems that they can live life to the fullest.”

Of course they can. The Wounded Warriors certainly do.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” airs each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

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