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Wounded Warriors show off softball skills at Fenway

Amputee veterans dominate Boston Marathon First Responders

BOSTON -- Kyle Earl knows the role he plays on his traveling softball team. He understands he's supposed to run really fast, put pressure on the defense with his legs and cover ground in the field. He's not trying to do too much else.

Earl is missing his right hand. It was amputated after an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq in 2006, when he was serving in the U.S. Marines as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"For me, I mean, having one hand, you have to catch, take the glove off and be able to throw," says Earl, 27, a Michigan native with a wife and three kids at home. "Hitting -- it's the same thing. This is all I got."

He motions to his right arm, which stops short near the wrist.

Earl grabs a bat to show how he swings.

"I hold it right here," he says, grasping the bottom of the bat with his left hand and resting the higher part of the grip on his right arm.

While it takes coordination for anyone to swing a bat successfully, the recipe also requires focus, perseverance and strength to swing one the way Earl swings it.

Earl served as the designated hitter in Monday night's game between his team, the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, and the opposition, the Boston Marathon First Responders. The game was played at Fenway Park with public-address announcers, TV cameras, an impressive crowd (admission was free, though donations to The One Fund were accepted at the door) and passionate players on both sides.

It was a feel-good atmosphere in the stands, but a walk onto the field immediately changed the tone from happy-to-be-here to losing-isn't-an-option.

This wasn't just a show of good sportsmanship filled with smiles for the 11 p.m. news.

"You either beat us 20-0 or we're going to beat you 20-0," says WWAST general manager David Van Sleet, an Army veteran who also spent 30 years with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The First Responders should've had a few practices beforehand, a theory they realized shortly after the game started. It wasn't that they didn't take their opponent seriously -- "To be on the same field as these guys is an honor itself," said Boston firefighter Phil Byrne, who was three blocks away from the first explosion April 15 -- they just never thought to organize a practice.

They were too happy to be there.

"Somebody texted me if I wanted to play in this game," Byrne said. "And I said yes before the ink was dry in his text."

The WWAST is no joke. Van Sleet put together a talented squad in March 2011, when the University of Arizona got a congressional grant to fund a disabled-veteran sports camp. The camp was part of MLB Spring Training and lasted for a week, but those who played on the WWAST wanted more than that.

When the week was over, the thought was unanimous: This can't end here.

In the time since, Van Sleet's crew has traveled to 55 cities in 25 states, playing a series of games -- typically against police departments or fire departments -- on a schedule that tends to be every other weekend.

The players are all missing a variety of limbs, ranging from one hand to a pair of legs. Many of them take college classes during the week and play on weekends. Some have jobs. Some have families. But they've all been through extensive rehabilitation and persevered.

"We have a motto," Van Sleet says. "Life without a limb is limitless. But more importantly, life goes on."

In the dugout, the players watch the game closely, cringing when a teammate drops a fly ball and jumping when the squad successfully -- and routinely -- turns a double play.

Matthew Kinsey, who plays without a right foot, has proven so talented that he was named MVP after homering in the celebrity softball game at the 2012 MLB All-Star Game in Kansas City. Joshua Wege, who plays with a pair of prosthetic legs, crushed a pitch over the fence in this year's celebrity game during All-Star Game festivities in New York and shared MVP honors with comedian Kevin James.

"I'm in awe every day watching these guys play," Earl said. "Josh over at first base, he's missing both his legs, but he can do splits. He can jump 6 to 8 inches."

And Earl, well, he can run.

In his first at-bat Monday night, he smacked a ground ball to the right side of the infield but ran so fast he forced a throwing error and ended up on second base.

"Holy cow," voiced players from the Marathon Responders' dugout.

The WWAST won the game, 28-11.

It was an impressive outing from an impressive group of people in both dugouts Monday night.

Did anybody stand out?

"Really, everybody," Earl said.

Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @jmastrodonato.
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