“Not many people get an opportunity to actually come down on the field,” 21-year-old Josh Wege said after his pre-game warm up at Nationals Park with ball and glove in tote. “Well … they actually get to come on the field but to actually play a game on this field, this is incredible.”
It’s true. More often than not, the people playing ball on a Major League field are professional players employed by Major League Baseball. On Sunday, though, the giant state-of-art sandlot located in Washington’s Navy Yard neighborhood hosted the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team in an exhibition game against a group of D.C. celebrities.
The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team is comprised of veterans and active duty soldiers who have lost limbs while seriving their country in the military during the post-9/11 wars. It is also the brainchild of Coach David Van Sleet, who started compiling the team six months ago. Van Sleet’s background is with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many of the 30 years Van Sleet’s spent with the VA office has been in prosthetics, during which time he was also playing softball at a high level.
“I started seeing some of the guys come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and how fit they look,” Van Sleet said. “University of Arizona was going to have a disabled veterans sports camp for the third year and the first two years was just wheelchair type athletics.”
The University of Arizona asked Van Sleet if he had a new idea for the Veterans sports camp which prompted him to share the vision he’d been cultivating for awhile. “I’ve always had this idea. I want to start the first ever amputee softball team in the world and they said do it so we brought 20 guys to Tucson, Az. this past March.” They picked up a few more players along the way to comprise the team of players represented at Nationals Park over the weekend.
While assembling the team, one of Van Sleet’s coaches walked passed Wege while he was at Walter Reed’s Military Advanced Training Center doing some agility drills. The coach asked Wege if he played softball at all.
“Heck yes I do,” he replied. From there, after a 20 month stay at Walter Reed, he joined the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team.
“I was waiting for this the entire stay at Walter Reed,” Wege said. “This means the world to me.”
Dan Lasko made the team based on a referral from another player. His friend had already made the squad, so Lasko asked if he’d tell the coach how much he loved all sports, how competitive he was, and how athletic he could be. That was three months ago.
“He gave the coach my name and number and next thing you know I’m in Louisville,” Lasko said.
The amount of success the team has accomplished in such a short time period leaves players like Lasko without the words to describe the feeling in full. “Taking the field with them [for] the first time, I got goose bumps,” Lasko said. “I always say there was only three times I got goose bumps in my life: getting married, my first child and then taking the field with these nine guys.”
The team’s rapid pace toward gaining momentum with the project is well deserved as far as Coach Van Sleet is concerned.
“A couple things have happened since we’ve begun in the past six months,” Van Sleet said. “Obviously Osama Bin Laden’s been caught and all these guys joined the service after 2001 and suffered their injury after 2001. So that was a milestone for them because they were all over there looking for him.”
As the tenth anniversary of September 11th approaches, playing at National Park in conjunction with the organization itself is a success viewed with pride. Van Sleet beams when asked what the experience means to him. The team means the world to him.
“My ultimate goal was just to get them back into their hometowns and cities playing in a beer league or a softball league, just get them back playing softball, but when I saw what we had I said, ‘We can go a little bit more than that.’”
“A perfect example is we’ve got a young guy on our team, 21-years-old, missing both legs. He lost them at 19. He plays in three leagues during the week and plays with us on weekend’s traveling. So I think I succeeded my goal.”
The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team went on to beat the D.C. Celebrities 15-4 and also won a great deal of respect from their competitors. “Watching them run is probably the most fascinating thing,” local blogger K Street Kate said.
“It’s as if they don’t have any disability at all. They actually have, I don’t really know how I can explain this, but they are managing the disability so well that it’s actually an ability for them. They are moving through it to do something that’s just incredible.”
MASN Reporter Debbi Taylor was also moved by being able to compete against the Wounded Warrior team. “Those guys are fantastic and I am so inspired by them and what they do,” she said.
The Washington Nationals and the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team announced Sunday that they have joined together in a partnership that will align the two teams in support of one another. “We are very excited to have the support of a team like the Nationals, whose players, coaches and executives have proven time and time again how committed they are to the military,” Van Sleet said of the partnership.
“Partnering with the Nationals gives our players a greater platform from which to motivate others to overcome adversity in their own lives. Our partnership with the Nationals is a perfect fit for us and for the baseball community.”