04/04/12 1:35 AM ET
Wounded Warriors prove anything is possible
By Jeff Seidel / Special to MLB.com
While rolling to a 17-4 victory over a group of local celebrities, the Warriors banged out numerous line drives and long blasts that kept outfielders running from start to finish. One ball traveled around 400 feet. In fact, the Warriors banged out 21 hits. Their offensive statistics are impressive by themselves -- and even more so considering this is a team of amputees.
The Wounded Warrior Amputee softball team is composed of veterans plus those in active duty service from around the U.S. who've lost limbs while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. They use some of the most modern prosthetic technology and travel around America playing some outstanding softball. This is going to be their second summer of going to different cities like a travel team.
General manager/head coach David Van Sleet, who recently retired after working for 30 years in prosthetics (but is not an amputee), guided the team to a 30-15 record in their first season last year. They found their way across the country, playing only able-bodied teams in such destinations as Louisville, Las Vegas, Florida, Arizona and California -- and now Nationals Park.
They keep a very straightforward schedule. The players, from all across the country, fly in to whatever city they play in on Thursdays. They practice on Friday morning and play that night. After that, the team practices again on Saturday morning before taking part in games in the afternoon.
They'll then fly back home on Sunday -- usually after making quite an impression.
"Sometimes they think we're coming in in wheelchairs ... and secondly, when they see us, they're like, 'Well, I don't know,'" Van Sleet said. "By the second inning, that's all gone out the window. They realize this team's the real deal. We've got some serious athletes on this team."
The Warriors are pushing the envelope even farther. Even though they play only able-bodied teams, they're getting noticed by those in the Major Leagues. This spring, they were invited by the White Sox, Nationals, Brewers and Twins camps. The interest in this program is growing.
"I've seen a small spark turn into a major wildfire," Van Sleet said.
A roster of about 10 players competed against the local celebrities in this game, including Brian Taylor Urrela, a 26-year-old St. Louis native who lost his right leg below the knee. He was injured in Baghdad in 2006 and had 36 surgeries attempting to save the leg before eventual amputation.
"Being with the guys that have gone through what I've gone through is a huge, huge thing for me," he said. "In most of our areas, we're the only combat-wounded veterans. Getting together twice a month is like being with your brothers."
Josh Wege has a similar history to Urrela's. He lost both legs below the knee after being hurt in Afghanistan three years ago. He loves playing on the team and belted a long shot to deep left-center field early in the game to help the Warriors take a lead they never lost.
"We all have to work together again," Wege said. "We all try to get the win at the end of the day."
The work these players put in made those on the celebrity team shake their heads in amazement.
One of their big fans is Tony Reali, the host of ESPN's "Around the Horn" who also appears on "PTI." Reali played on the celebrity team and said many of these amputees were strong athletes in high school, and this program gives them the chance to find that success once again.
"One of the things I see is, it's important that they have opportunities like this to show that they can recover from some of the darkest points that war has brought them," Reali said. "I'm sure -- and I've talked to some of the guys about this -- that these are guys who are red-blooded athletes who came and saw and conquered in their high school and college days. They've had an opportunity now to still do that after all this. That's a testament to who they are as a person."
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray was clearly moved after watching the Warriors. He played in the game and could just shake his head in wonder at what they do.
"It's so inspirational," Gray said. "Look at these guys; see what they've given up for their country. The real winners have already been declared, and it's the other team."
The players loved competing in a game where they scored another impressive victory. But on a night like this, there's more to it for the Warriors than just playing.
Urrela said that just getting the chance to play on a Major League field fulfills another dream for many Warriors and helps them realize how much things have changed in the past few years.
"We all almost died," Urrela said. "To come that close to death, and five years later or six years later, to be out here with big league players and be on the field and take in all the sites, it's amazing."
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.