By David McCabe
They’re a softball team whose players have played at PETCO Park in San Diego, Calif., and Nationals Park in Washington, DC. They’ve been honored at home plate at Yankee Stadium and played in an all-star game. And while the major-league baseball draft might be tough, the members of the Wounded Warrior Softball Team have been through much, much more than your average softball players.
That’s because every man on the team is a veteran who has lost at least one limb and plays wearing a prosthesis. This Saturday, at 2 p.m., the team will play an exhibition game at Mashashimuet Park — only one more stop on a journey that has taken them to a winning 34-20 record and seen the team raise awareness of the issues facing veterans around the country. Also, along the way, team members say the organization has helped them transition back into civilian life and connect with other amputees around the country.
The team’s founder and coach, David Van Sleet, was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs as an administrator, helping manage the department’s programs for amputees using prosthetics. At the time, he was in charge of all the VA hospitals in the Southwest, and noticed something about many of the amputees he worked with.
“I saw what was coming back from these recent wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — a lot of these guys, they were younger and in pretty good shape,” he said. “And they were going through their rehab pretty quickly and seemed anxious to get back to their normal lives which often included playing sports.”
If these veterans had been competitive athletes before their injuries, he figured, there was no reason why they couldn’t return to the field.
Working with Arizona State University, Van Sleet planned a softball camp that would serve 20 veterans and culminate in a game on the university’s baseball field. He reached out through the VA and the veteran’s services organization Wounded Warrior to amputees, asking for anyone who might be interested in a week long softball camp to get in touch.
In total, 400 veterans either applied or expressed interest in attending the camp and joining the team.
When the 20 were selected, they traveled to the university and spent a week in “spring training,” as Van Sleet calls it. Then, on a Friday night, after Arizona’s softball team had played a game, the 20 men took the field for a ten-on-ten inter-squad game under the lights. They had a pretty decent crowd left over from the previous game.
“The crowd was flabbergasted,” Van Sleet said. He added, “Being all amputees and all from the war, they all bought into that one pretty quickly.”
Saul Bosquez, who wears a prosthesis below his left knee — the result of an injury he suffered while serving in Iraq’s Karada Peninsula — played in that game. He’s played baseball almost his entire life, but going into the camp he says he was nervous that it would be too difficult to adjust to the game.
“Fielding and throwing came back pretty naturally, but the swing is an entirely different thing,” he said.
When the first pitch came, Bosquez hit a homerun, and his fears were dispelled.
Since then, the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team has played more than 50 games and traveled around the country. For the players, the team has provided them with a community of like-minded amputees.
“It’s a reminder of what I’ve done and that there are other guys like me, who don’t make excuses,” said Matias Ferreira, who lost both legs below the knee while serving in Halmand Province in Afghanistan.
Even though the team usually only plays on the weekends, the players keep in touch through the week.
“We’re really close, it really helps to have guys like that with you who know how you’re feeling,” said Bosquez.
For Bosquez, a memorable moment came when he was asked to play in the Taco Bell All-Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game along with his teammate Matt Kinsey at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, MO. Kinsey was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
But being a part of the team isn’t just about getting to play at some of America’s greatest major league ballparks. It has also allowed the veterans to meet other people — not just service members — who have lost a limb. Everywhere they travel, the team tries to find a local child who has lost a limb who can serve as their bat boy or girl.
At one game, in Binghamton, NY, their bat boy was named Scotty. He had lost his arm up to his shoulder in an accident. During the game, Ferreira recalls, Scotty was amazed to see an amputee just like him out on the field.
By the end of the game, he was running bases with the team.
Moments like that act as reminders that the team’s players are role models, to amputees and anyone trying to return to their lives after a setback.
“They just want the general public to know for the most part they’re doing OK and life’s going on,” Van Sleet said.
The team will bring that message to Long Island this weekend, first on Saturday in Sag Harbor and then on Sunday in Center Moriches. In both locations, they’ll play against a team of local celebrities.
The trip was organized by Joseph Bartumioli, who saw a story about the team on the HBO show Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. He got in touch with Van Sleet after the program aired, and spent the last year putting this weekend’s trip together.
The team, for their part, is excited about the chance to visit the much-vaunted Hamptons.
“All of us have seen the Hamptons in People magazine,” Van Sleet said, “but we haven’t seen it in person.”
Saturday’s game starts at 2 p.m. at Mashashimuet Park. On Friday, members of the team will be at a cocktail party reception, open to the public, at LT Burger, on Main Street in Sag Harbor, from 3 to 6 p.m. A $55 admission fee goes to help raise funds for the Wounded Warriors.