As you might recall from a post this past summer, amputees have been playing baseball more or less continuously since the 19th century. There was even an Oscar-winning movie about RBKA pitcher Monty Stratton back in the 1940s, starring Jimmy Stewart.
Now that the MLB playoffs have arrived, we turn our attention to what is probably the best amputee ballclub in history: the LS Warriors.
Since their formation three years ago, the Warriors have gone toe-to-toe with some of the best able-bodied teams in U.S. amateur baseball—and beat them more often than not. They’re coached by former major leaguers, and the roster includes current and former college stars from all over the country. The Warriors are just two years removed from a second-place finish in the World Series of the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MSBL). And according to team founder and general manager Dave Van Sleet, these limb-different sluggers are just beginning to tap their potential.
“These are the best amputee ballplayers in the country,” says Van Sleet, who spent 30 years with the Veterans Administration as an ocular prosthetist. “Most of them play in able-bodied leagues wherever they live all over the country. A number of them are in [Division II or Division III] NCAA programs, and a number are college players who’ve graduated. Most of them are the only amputee in their league. It’s the best of the best.” The commitment to excellence starts on the coaching staff. The Warriors are managed by former big-league outfielder Curtis Pride, one of the few hearing-impaired players in MLB history, and his pitching coach is former Twins hurler Len Whitehouse, who’s the answer to a pretty good trivia question (he struck out Reggie Jackson for that slugger’s 2500th career whiff). Former big-league All-Star John Kruk is also involved. The roster itself is led by pitchers Parker Hanson (who sports a 92-mph fastball) and Josh Stevens. This hard-to-hit tandem regularly puts zeroes on the scoreboard, giving the Warriors a chance against almost any foe. Both are congenital arm amputees. The lineup is anchored by Army veteran Carlo Adame and ex-football standout DJ Vanderwerf.
“Sports are challenging whether you’re able-bodied or not,” says Vanderwerf, a threesport star in high school who played NCAA Division I football at East Tennessee State University. “Missing a limb is just one more challenge to overcome. It’s not a deterrent or anything that would keep you from playing. We just go out there and show people.” Van Sleet assembled the initial roster via a national tryout camp in 2017. His VA connections to the wounded warrior community gave him a great talent foundation, and he put out an open call via Facebook and the Internet to attract players from all over the country.
“It’s amazing, some of the talent that came in based on doing this blindly over the Internet,” says Van Sleet. “There’s a lot of ground to cover on a baseball field. The baselines are 90 feet, and the outfield is big. You need players who are really mobile and can really throw.” The team has turned away some exceptional players, Van Sleet adds—and that’s a good problem to have. “We’re constantly trying to get better,” he says. “If you can play, we’ll find a spot for you.” “I was curious to see what playing with a bunch of people like me was like,” says Vanderwerf, who had never played with or against another amputee until joining the Warriors. “It was an interesting concept to me. Not all amputations are the same, and people have different challenges, different approaches. I was a child when I had my amputation, so I learned to walk with my prosthesis like any child growing up would. It was just normal. But some of these guys had to relearn how to walk as adults. We’re all learning from each other. It’s a great team atmosphere, a great bunch of guys.” The pandemic forced the cancellation of tournaments in May and October, but the Warriors will be in action next month at the MSBL Fall Classic in West Palm Beach, Florida. They’ll compete in the 35+ division, playing as many as 10 games in a span of six days.
“Don’t underestimate this team,” says Van Sleet. “We’ve done quite well.” Check back in next month to see how the Warriors fare.