PLANT CITY, Fla. — When a roadside bomb in Afghanistan shredded Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Wege's legs in 2009, the former high school baseball star wondered if he would even survive – let alone walk, run or play ball again.
But on a recent Saturday afternoon, a crowd at a Tampa-area stadium watched him drill a pitch from former U.S. Olympic softballer Jennie Finch over an outfielder's head and use his high-tech prosthetic legs to run out a triple – finishing with a belly-flop slide into third base. His Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team crushed an all-star squad that included former pro and college players 23-8.
Wege, 22, plays first base for the barnstorming bunch of Army and Marine combat veterans, most of whom rely on prosthetic limbs. Corporate sponsorships have allowed the team to travel around the country playing local teams for charity, amassing a 14-13 record going into a game Sunday against a team of first responders in Orange County, Calif. And their schedule is growing, with 75 games already booked for 2012.
All of the infielders are missing at least one of their legs. Two of the outfielders use those special carbon-fiber running legs, the ones that look like upside-down question marks, for speed. One outfielder is missing a hand, and the right-fielder plays without his entire left arm and shoulder.
His name is Greg Reynolds, and after most Wounded Warrior losses he challenges the toughest dude on the other team to a push-ups contest. He lets opponents use both arms, but the 27-year-old Massachusetts native has only lost once. Seventy is his record.
"There is no better feeling than to get on the field and have people think, `You can't play, you only have one arm,'" says Reynolds, a former soldier who survived a harrowing tour of duty in Iraq only to lose his limb in a motorcycle accident back home. "But watch me play. Watch me play. Watch what I do."
They play slow-pitch softball, but this is not your casual Thursday night beer league. And the in-your-face nature of their disabilities doesn't inspire pity or sympathy – at least not after they start punishing the ball, flying around the bases and making highlight-reel plays in the field. Finch's Fellowship of Christian Athletes team won the other two games last weekend, including a 13-11 squeaker in the rubber match.
At Wounded Warrior games, kids ask for their autographs, women hug them and veterans pump their hands in gratitude.
"The first time we got to see him play with these incredible ballplayers, I couldn't see the field because I was crying too much," says Dave Wege, Josh's father, a Lutheran school principal in Waucousta, Wis. "It was such an emotional thing because at that point we knew that Josh was not only back, he was stronger than before in so many ways."
Coach David Van Sleet, who worked in prosthetics for the military for 30 years, started the team 10 months ago and retired in December to manage it full-time. He got some players from a tryout at the University of Arizona and picked up others along the way, relying on word of mouth at the Veterans Affairs hospitals and rehab centers. They come together for the weekend outings from around the country, always trying to fit in a practice before the games.
The team travels with 11 players who proudly wear around $2 million worth of prosthetic limbs, and no matter the weather they won't wear long pants. They want fans – particularly those with disabilities – to see they are different, but just as good.
"We got a good bunch of guys," says the 55-year-old Tucson resident Van Sleet, who is not an amputee himself. "A lot of amputees are depressed, sitting at home, not getting off the couch. And we say, `Look you don't have to do anything at this level, but you need to get up and go do something.' We try to encourage other amputees to maybe get back into a normal state of life, one way or another. They've got to get going."
Brian Taylor Urruela, 26, is the catcher and one of the players who wears a curvy running leg. The former solider from St. Louis lost his right leg below the knee to a roadside bomb in Iraq in October 2006, two days before he was scheduled to finish his tour and come home. The former high school baseball player said it took hundreds of practice swings and other physical therapy work to develop his hitting again, but he figures he's nearly as fast on the prosthetic as he was before.
"When you have a disability like this you have a feeling that you're never going to be able to do competitive sports again," said Urruela, who is going to school in Tampa. "If you look at us, we're just about as good as any team that plays as much as we do, and we do that with missing limbs. But we were ugly when we first started. It's just a testament to what kind of rehabilitation this game gives to us."
Josh Wege, the team's only double amputee, said he jumped at the chance to play ball again but acknowledged his initial fears that he might not be able to do it at a level that suited him. He got help and encouragement from his sister, a physical therapist who worked with him to develop balance and other athletic skills he would put to use on the field.
The morning of the first of three games against Finch's team, Wege's dad tossed batting practice to him on a Plant City, Fla., softball field. Dave Wege watched his son spray line drives all over the lot, grinning with each satisfying "thunk" of the aluminum Louisville Slugger.
"One thing we say as amputees is we're trying to get back our new normal," Wege said. "Our limbs aren't going to grow back any time soon, so this is the normal you're going to have to get used to. Without this team, my new normal wouldn't be complete."