VIERA, Fla. — Matt Kinsey said he plays for the newest version of “America’s Team” — the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team.
“We’ve got the best fans of any team in America,” Kinsey said Feb. 24 after practicing at Space Coast Stadium, spring training home of the Washington Nationals. “The support that we get is just unbelievable — everywhere we go, we get first-class treatment.”
All the players are Soldiers or Marines who lost limbs while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. They’re the first softball squad completely assembled with wounded warriors playing on prosthetics or with missing body parts. They plan to play 60 to 75 games this year against able-bodied teams, and they expect to win most of those contests. For these guys, however, every day spent on the diamond equals a win-win situation.
“The fans thank you for your service and everything, but they’re kind of in awe because they’re not used to seeing — it’s the first time it’s ever been done: guys playing competitive softball on prosthetics,” Kinsey said. “But they find out pretty quickly that we can play. As soon as the game is over, I think they’re just in awe of how hard we play and the talent level we’re at. We get a really good reception,” he said.
The team is the brainchild of David Van Sleet, 56, a former Army specialist who spent the past 32 years working with prosthetics for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I’ve been involved with softball my whole life, managing, coaching and playing,” Van Sleet said. “I just stopped to do this. I saw some pretty athletic looking guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the University of Arizona acquired a congressional grant that enabled us to bring 20 guys to Tucson in 2011 for a disabled veterans sports camp. I came up with the idea to make it a softball camp.
“When we were there, the camaraderie and the skill level that I saw, I was like, ‘Man, we’ve got something here.’”
The team carries 13 to 15 players on the roster and takes 11 on each road trip to play against military teams, firemen, policemen, celebrity squads, elite women’s teams and all-comers.
They will face a D.C. celebrity team following the game between the Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals April 3 at Nationals Park in Washington. They also have a game set for Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
More extravaganzas are set for Huntsville, Ala., and The Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y. Olympic softball star Jennie Finch has invited them to Louisiana for a “Battle on the Bayou.” The team is also slated to play before the NCAA Women’s Softball Championship finale in Oklahoma City.
The Washington Nationals and Louisville Slugger are their primary sponsors, with Boombah providing shoes and Phiten tossing in accessories. Even musician Jimmy Buffett has boarded the caravan.
Kinsey, 26, played baseball for Rockville High School in Indiana and a year of junior college ball for Danville Area Community College in Illinois. He experienced arm problems there and returned home to work on a farm for a couple of years before joining the Army in March 2006. His life was forever changed June 2, 2010.
“I was on my second tour of Afghanistan when I stepped on a land mine on a night patrol and lost my right foot,” he said. “Half of it was missing initially. The explosion blew away from me, so I was very fortunate that happened. When I got to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), we decided to take the rest of the foot. I had a very quick recovery. I was running by August.”
However, running again was a learning process.
“It’s different at first. I’m not going to lie,” said Kinsey, who shifted his pitching and catching baseball prowess to shortstop for softball. “You basically retrain yourself on how to play and how to move. But as far as getting up and going and planting, I probably have more of an advantage because I create more torque. I have more leg than a lot of the guys.”
Saul Bosquez played high school, American Legion and two seasons of junior college baseball at Grand Rapids Community College before joining the Army. He soon deployed as a specialist from Fort Benning to Iraq. On Aug. 1, 2007, Bosquez had completed a convoy of Iraqi police checkpoints and was returning to base when his vehicle encountered an IED that broke his left leg in 11 places and collected two of his right toes. Eventually, he became a below-the-knee amputee.
“It was the best thing for me to do,” Bosquez said. “It was a tough decision, being 22 years old, and having to decide where I wanted my leg cut off at. I guess it’s a decision you never think you’re going to have to make.” Bosquez’s first athletic journey outside of WRAMC in Washington was to Jim Estes’ Salute Military Golf Association clinic for wounded warriors in Olney, Md.
“You can feel sorry for yourself all you want, but it’s not going to make your situation any better,” Bosquez said then. “So why not try to do something?”
On a good day, he has a golf handicap of 13, a score most honest hacks would envy.
“It’s like the easiest thing to do for guys missing legs,” he said. “It’s not very high-impact, and it gets them back out there competing. Golf is not always against other people, though, it’s a very mental game. I have a newly found respect for golf. I play a lot of golf now.”
Bosquez, however, was a former football and baseball player who swam and ran track. He still yearned for team competition and was determined to play baseball again — or at least softball.
Fast forward four years, and Bosquez is playing in a veritable softball league of his own.
Last March, about 20 wounded warriors gathered for the tryout camp at the University of Arizona. They concluded with an intra-squad game in which Bosquez threw out a runner at home plate to preserve the victory. Kinsey said he still has difficulty fathoming this whole scenario.
“If you would have asked me over a year ago when I got hit if I would be playing softball at spring training with the Nationals, let alone being on this team and getting to go to all the places that we’ve been, I’d tell you that you were full of it,” he said. “This has been a dream come true, and it’s only getting bigger.”
Meanwhile, Bosquez is basking in the moment of traveling around the country to play softball.
“We were in Sports Illustrated. We were on Real Sports with Bryant Gumble on HBO. We just played a flag football game against retired NFL guys in Indianapolis the week of the Super Bowl — and we won by like 21 points. And, we were on a five-minute segment on SportsCenter with Rick Reilly. It’s been a pretty big ride,” he said.
The players said they hope to spread awareness and inspire others to realize that just because you’re injured, it’s not over.
“You’re going to have to work for it, but you can do it again,” Bosquez said. “We show that, and hopefully other disabled guys and other amputees will get that. Hopefully, we can inspire them to go out there and try.”