Special event held at Fenway for veterans, Boston Marathon first responders
BOSTON -- Josh Wege stepped into the pitch and smacked the neon yellow softball off the Green Monster, churning his carbon fiber prosthetic legs as he rounded first base and headed for second. Eight-year-old Shaun McLaughlin, with an artificial leg of his own, ran out to retrieve the bat.
One night after the Red Sox and Yankees played another of their four-hour grudge matches, Fenway Park was friendly again, hosting a softball game between the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team and a group of Boston Marathon first responders to raise money for victims of the April 15 attacks.
"When we heard about what happened, we just knew it was the right match," said David Van Sleet, an army veteran who is the founder and general manager of the team. "We get a lot of attention, but this is something special we can do for them."
About 700 people, many of them wearing "Boston Strong" T-shirts, showed up on a night the Red Sox were on the road to hang out in baseball's oldest ballpark. The event raised $4,001 in cash donations stuffed into boxes at the gates; it will go to The One Fund, the charity established to help victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.
The team of military veterans received a two-minute standing ovation when they were honored before Sunday night's game between Boston and New York. The first responders included five police officers, five firefighters and five members of the Emergency Medical Services.
McLaughlin, who was born without his right leg, served as the Wounded Warriors bat boy.
"At this age, I don't think he understands," said his mother, Sara, "that these are the true heroes, not the Red Sox and Yankees."
Pitcher Todd Reed, 52, a native of Newton, who stepped on a land mine while on patrol in northern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, sported a Red Sox logo on his prosthetic right leg. Everyone else on the team is younger and enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Some are missing one leg; Wege, a former Marine lance corporal, lost both to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom. Still, he was the Most Valuable Player of last month's celebrity softball game the night before the major league All-Star Game.
Outfielder Greg Reynolds had his camouflage-patterned jersey sewn shut where his left arm would be. But in the field Reynolds handled several plays flawlessly, catching the ball in his glove, flipping first the ball and then the glove in the air, and then grabbing the ball in his bare hand to make the throw back to the infield.
It's all part of the motto: "Life without a limb is limitless," a message the team wanted to spread to those who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon attacks. Van Sleet said several new amputees from the bombing attended the game and talked to the players afterward.
And the message clearly resonated with their bat boy.
"I think he gets it," said Sara McLaughlin, who watched her son with the rest of their family from the seats behind the visitor's dugout. "I think that's how he lives. But I think it's great for him to see these athletes out there doing it, too."
The team of military veterans, which has been together for about 2 1/2 years, plays about 25 weekends a year and only against able-bodied teams, according to Chris Visser, a volunteer. They win about 75 percent of the time.
"For want of a better description, they are the Harlem Globetrotters of inspirational softball," Visser said.
And for this game, their opponents were impressive as well.
John DuBeau, a lieutenant with Ladder 17, has run in 11 Boston Marathons; he didn't work this one because he worked the night before. Phil Byrne, who works on Engine 39 in South Boston, was inside the barriers on Boylston Street and made his way to the bomb sites within minutes.
Boston Police sergeant Bobby Ridge, whose leg bears the scars of an on-duty car accident when he was a rookie, was assigned the medical tent just off the marathon finish line when he heard the first explosion -- and felt the shockwaves in his chest. He arrived at the bombing site as the second blast went off.
"I could see all the people stampeding away, saw some bad stuff -- the worst thing I ever saw in my life," he said. "I hope I never see it again."
But the opportunity to play at Fenway is the kind of thing that helps him forget, Ridge said.
The softball field was laid out within the regular Fenway diamond, with a 50-foot pitcher's mound and 70-foot base paths. The teams lined up along the baselines for the national anthem, then remained at attention when the music was done to watch the color guard exit the field.
Red Sox groundskeeper Dave Mellor stopped by to wish the teams luck.
"I really appreciate everything you do for us," he told the first responders, "and I hope you create some good memories tonight."