It was incredibly hot and humid—typical mid-summer baseball weather. In this case, five teams playing softball in the 40th National Veterans Wheelchair Games battled the elements and had a great time in the process.
The Mets, Nets, Giants, Islanders, and Yankees competed last week at Randall’s Island Park in New York City. The Islanders captured the gold medal, the Nets the silver, and the Yankees the bronze. VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) co-presented the wheelchair games from Aug. 7 to 14.
Flanked on one side by the Robert F. Kennedy bridge and on the other by the Manhattan skyline, players typically with lower-limb disabilities, such as paraplegia and amputations, competed on a paved surface under rules of the National Wheelchair Softball Association (NWSA). All batters started with a one ball, one strike count, with two foul balls equaling a strikeout. Plus, no one could leave their chair when hitting or fielding a ball, which was 16 inches in size, compared with a standard 12-inch softball.
The Nets, assisted by the hitting of Charles Outlaw, won the silver medal. (Photo by Jennifer Roy)
“It’s almost like playing regular softball,” Nets shortstop Charles Outlaw, an Army Veteran, said during a 10-1 win over the Mets in the first game. “The only difference is the wheelchair, the count, and a few of the rules.”
`Amazing’ plays common in wheelchair softball
Fellow Army Veteran Derrick McMillon, a first baseman for the Islanders, explained what it takes to excel in wheelchair softball. A resident of the Atlanta area, he plays on a team in PVA’s southeastern chapter.
“First of all, you’ve got to have the right chair, right height,” he said. “Everybody’s wheelchair is set for them. You need to get that nice snug spot. I’m not as quick as most of these guys … but I can hit. It’s a challenge. I try to use both hands and come up low to get more power in my swing. When just hitting the ball straight on, it doesn’t go anywhere. But if you bring that bat low and swing up, it’s going.”
Head official Bob Crowe, who is affiliated with NWSA, is used to seeing “amazing” plays in the sport.
“You’ll see players throw runners out from the outfield,” he said. “It happens all the time. There are collisions at home plate when balls and players arrive at the same time. It’s like POW! But often the catcher holds onto the ball for an out.”
Connecting with other Veterans on the diamond
Not surprisingly, the day was about more than just playing softball. VA Secretary Dennis McDonough stopped by at one point to mingle with the players. And in what has become a common theme in the wheelchair games and the rest of VA’s recreational and rehabilitative sports, the Veterans soaked in the camaraderie and kinship they felt with one another. They were randomly selected for their teams.
“I get inspiration from these guys,” said Mets third baseman Glenn Isaacfretz, who also served in the Army. “When I started playing [wheelchair softball], I weighed 340 pounds. I’m at 215 right now. I lost weight so I could play softball. Softball has been a blessing.”
Yankees right fielder and Navy Veteran Silver Becerra: “I love this. It’s one of the best ways to meet people and connect with other Veterans.”
Like Becerra, Mets first baseman John Wade competed in softball at the wheelchair games for the first time. Once a football and baseball player at Memphis State University, he “loved” the experience of the wheelchair games but focused more on the camaraderie. He also did his share of trash talking, once joking to an opposing player: “Oh, you really knocked the cover off of that ball,” despite the fact it moved only a few inches.
`A love for life’
Three years ago, Wade’s left leg was amputated above the knee, after an 18-wheel truck he was driving slammed into a tree. But he said the accident was the “best thing that ever happened to me,” noting that he had suicidal thoughts beforehand. Now, he’s involved in sports, such as rock climbing, sky diving, and water skiing, that he wouldn’t have done before the accident.
“When I woke up from the accident, I was like, `Thank God. Let’s live,’” he said. “I built a life for myself and a love for life and a respect for other people. I learned that it’s not all about you.”
The VA NY Harbor Healthcare System hosted the 2021 National Veterans Wheelchair Games – the world’s largest annual wheelchair sports event solely for Veterans. The games showcased the preventive and therapeutic value of sports and fitness, and supported VA’s comprehensive recreation and rehabilitation therapy programs.