High schooler returns after losing leg
Winters makes inspiring comeback after near-fatal accident
WINTER PARK, Fla. -- They filled up two sets of bleachers, huddled up near the concession stands, stood along the outfield wall and even nestled in the home dugout, all to catch a glimpse of the teenage boy who has turned heads across the nation and fixated them on this small suburban town in Central Florida.
In this city, what Nate Winters is doing on the mound is at the forefront, even though he's far from being a Major League pitcher, the high school game he played in on Friday had no postseason implications and his greatest accomplishment has nothing to do with his pitching line.
Nearly 21 months ago, a lazy summer day got all too exciting with one sharp turn of a boat. Winters ended up losing his entire left leg and parts of his right, and he came close to death.
But Winters is very much alive now. And judging by the attention that has surrounded him lately, so is his remarkable story.
"[The accident] made me realize that everything happens for a reason, and when something bad happens, you just have to go through it," Winters said. "You can either put yourself down or pick yourself up. I learned to pick myself up."
After a boat propeller shredded his left leg from six inches above the knee, tore an inch off his right ankle, cut his right foot in two places, chopped off his fourth toe, sliced his buttocks, caused his femoral artery to burst, broke his rib, mangled his back and made him lose 80 percent of his blood, Winters -- once a standout young ballplayer with a world of promise -- is pitching at a high level again, with the help of a prosthetic leg.
He conquered mental breakdowns, embarrassing mound slips and countless leg adjustments to finally appear in a varsity game on April 12, when the Winter Park High School junior gave up just one hit and one unearned run in four-plus innings.
Then, on Friday night, during the regular-season finale against Lake Howell -- the No. 1 seed in a highly competitive district -- and in front of easily over 500 fans and nearly 10 camera lenses, Winters' incredible journey gained another milestone: His first win.
The usually unfazed 17-year-old right-hander started off a bit shaky -- an ESPN film crew and several reporters watching his every move may have had something to do with that -- but his stuff got better as the game wore on, as he ended up surrendering three earned runs (five total because of a two-out error in the second inning) on seven hits and one walk in 5 1/3 innings in his club's 11-5 victory.
But that's not the best part of this story.
"The real miracle is that he's alive," Winters' high school coach, Bob King, said. "This isn't a miracle that he's playing baseball. He's alive! That's a miracle."
Take away the awkward delivery that compensates for a missing leg and the hype that currently follows him, and Winters -- with his 80-mph fastball, swooping curve, reliable changeup and gauche pickoff move -- is just one of the guys when he toes the rubber. But not too long ago, many felt he'd never be normal again.
And before that, he almost ceased to exist.
A nearly fatal boat ride
Winters said he thought he was going to die "the whole time" while in the middle of his horrific accident, but he still had hope. So when he was wheeled off the boat and paramedics tried to put him in trauma trousers to help control his bleeding, Nate resisted -- thinking it was a body bag.
"I'm not dead yet!" he recalled screaming before realizing what was happening.
That's when Dr. Tom Winters arrived and found his son "white as a sheet" and desperately clinging to life. At that point, the two shared a moment.
"I went up to him and kind of grabbed his hand and said, 'Nate, how are you doing?' And he goes, 'I lost my leg, Dad.' That's the first thing he said to me," said Tom, an orthopedic surgeon who has dealt with several Major Leaguers. "And I said, 'Well, Nate, there's worse things in life.' And then he looked at me in the eye and said, 'Am I going to die?' I said, 'Nate, if you got this far, God's got a plan for you. No, you're not going to die.' But I didn't realize how close it was."
Oh, it was close. Too close.
Winters had a 1-in-100 chance of even getting out of the water alive when his femoral artery spit out blood like a hose after the boat propeller crashed down on his lower body. But he somehow mustered the strength to swim back to the boat, which was stopped a quarter-mile off the dock.
If it wasn't for his brother, Zach, alertly tying a tourniquet around his bleeding leg, Nate probably would've died before reaching shore. And if the house he was brought back to wasn't across the street from the only field in the area where a helicopter could land, Winters wouldn't have gone from 911 call to hospital in 35 minutes, probably dying then, too.
Those were the precious seconds. Here were the centimeters: When Winters' rib was cut, the propeller was about a millimeter away from his lungs, which would've killed him; and when the blades cut up his back, they were a half-inch removed from his spine, which would've made him a paraplegic.
To top it all off, his hemoglobin dropped to a shocking level of 3.1, which, according to the Orlando Regional Medical Center, is the lowest they've ever had somebody survive.
"He's a pitcher with a catcher's mentality," said Tom Winters, who's also majority owner of the Brevard County Manatees, one of the Brewers' Class A affiliates. "He's tough as nails."
Coming all the way back
After undergoing nine surgeries in his 10 days at the hospital -- a possible 10th came when doctors at one point considered placing his left foot on his right leg, but that never materialized -- Winters filled the empty spaces in his life with his guitar, which led him to him forming his current band, "Inner Coastal."
But when his fingertips bled from banging too frequently on strings, Winters -- an avid Red Sox fan -- would toss a baseball in the air while dreaming of one day stepping back on the field.
Winters tried throwing that spring but bounced his pitches and often fell, so he gave it up. Then, the following fall, Winter Park catcher Mike Boles encouraged him to give it another shot. This time, after getting better acclimated to his new leg, Winters -- a corner infielder and pitcher as a freshman -- was better, and he was motivated to get back with his team.
"I knew he could walk," Boles said. "I never knew he could throw."
But the darkest hour in Winters' baseball comeback then came in late January, when he rolled his foot on the mound and fell awkwardly in the middle of practice. That day, he went home embarrassed and was convinced he was quitting.
"That was the biggest setback to this point that I've had," Winters said. "I was just thinking, 'If I'm going to be falling, how am I going to be pitching?'"
That's when Winters' prosthetic expert recommended a leg designed for snowboarders that had more spring in the kneecap and could be more tolerant of pitching.
With that new leg -- the one he now uses exclusively on the mound -- Winters pitched in a couple of tune-up junior-varsity games that convinced King he was ready for his biggest challenge -- a return to the varsity level.
"I know that he can handle failure as well as success," King said. "Some kids, you may not want them out there that quickly. But with Nate, 'Here you go. Let's see what you've got.'"
After a successful second varsity start on Friday, that mentality will continue.
If Winter Park wins its first two district games, King said there's an "excellent chance" Winters will start the district championship. The chances are even better that he'll be pitching in a more prominent role next season, when he tweaks his prosthetic leg for more mobility, gains better balance and continues to work his arm into shape.
If that goes well, Winters strives to pitch in college. At this point, it'd be foolish to doubt him on anything.
"He just absolutely adored the game like not too many kids I've ever seen growing up," said former Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Frank Viola, who coached Winters in preparatory school. "And to see that possibly taken away from him when he lost that leg in the boating accident, it would've been devastating for anybody else. But Nate being the kid he is and as tough as he is, he just said, 'I'm going to beat this my own way.' And the rest is pretty much history. It's a heck of a story."
And one that keeps getting better.
Though his pitching line wasn't as impressive this time around, that crowd at Winter Park High's baseball field -- the largest ever, they say -- clung to every pitch Winters threw on this on Friday night, even though most of them were moved by his comeback way before he even stepped back on the mound.
So, after inducing a groundout to start the sixth and finish his night, an elated Winters gave a flip of the cap and a wave to his cheering section as he slowly hobbled back to the dugout to join his ecstatic teammates, all of whom were lined up and ready to congratulate him.
At one point, Winters was almost pronounced dead. But at that moment, no heart beat faster than his.
"I know a lot of bad stuff happened, but a lot of good stuff happened, too," Winters said about the accident. "I was saved. And I had a one in 10,000 chance of living. And I'm still alive. It was a bad day, but it was certainly a good day, too."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.