Nick Clark had butterflies in his stomach Saturday as he took the diamond at Cheney Stadium for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a traveling squad that has inspired crowds in nearly 60 cities over the past two years.
It wasn’t the stadium. The former soldier from Puyallup played at Boston’s famed Fenway Park just last month.
And it wasn’t the pressure. He’s a guy who joined the Army because he “wanted to jump out of airplanes and kill terrorists.”
It was something about playing a softball game in front of people he has known his whole life. They cheered for him each time he came to the plate, watching him rip line drives and sprint on the blade-like prosthetic he wears in place of the left leg he lost to an insurgent rocket in Afghanistan six years ago.
“It was the most nervous I’ve ever been,” he said at the game’s close.
Forget the box score. The wounded warrior team had one of its worst games on record, losing 24-8 to a squad of airmen from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The players grumbled that they’ll do better Sunday when they take on a team from Seattle University.
The fans who filled the home sections at Cheney Stadium showed up to support a team made up almost entirely of men who lost limbs while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, overcoming steep recoveries – including $2 million in prosthetics – to take up sports and reclaim their lives.
“It’s not about winning. We already won,” said David Van Sleet, the team’s founder and general manager.
His players include Greg Reynolds, 29, who survived his tour in Iraq only lose to his left arm in a motorcycle accident at home. He plays in the outfield, where he shags pop-ups with a glove on his right hand, drops the mitt and then throws the ball to his cutoff man.
He slapped out three singles in a game in California earlier this summer, though he had a rougher day at the plate in Tacoma.
He calls himself “honored and privileged” to play on a softball team that has toured the country, landing in 27 states. He likes giving back at events where veterans mentor child amputees.
“I’ve got one life to live and I’m going to live it the best I can,” Reynolds said.
Josh Wege of Fond du Lac, Wis., had the best game among the wounded warriors against Lewis-McChord’s Trailer Park Ninjas. The double amputee was the celebrity MVP at this year’s All Star Game in New York. He showed why at Cheney Stadium, tumbling over himself to catch long fly balls in center field. He pulled an inside-the-park home run, too.
“I really enjoy playing with the wounded warriors. It gets that competitive edge I was missing” since the former Marine lost his lower legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
More than competition, Josh Wold, 27, of Olympia found a sense of belonging when he joined the team this year. He’s been involved with individual sports ever since he lost part of a foot to a bomb in Baghdad in 2007. Since then, he has won kayaking competitions and participated in triathalons.
“Basically everything he tries to do he dominates,” said his wife, Celeste.
She said he comes home in high spirits when he travels with the softball team.
“These are amazing guys,” she said.
Wold takes heart in the team’s motto, “Life without a limb is limitless.”
“The camaraderie is really strong with these guys,” he said.
Like Wold, Clark raced through his recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. Within a year of his injury, he participated in a daunting hike in New Mexico that pays homage to soldiers killed in the Bataan Death March in the Philippines early in World War II. It caught his interest because his great uncle was one of the casualties of that battle in the Pacific.
“I wasn’t trying to waste any time” taking on physical challenges in his recovery, Clark said.
Years later, he skateboards, snowshoes and backpacks around the Evergreen State. Losing a leg “didn’t slow him down a bit,” said longtime friend Daniel Nielson of Tacoma.
Saturday’s game was the first time his father, Mark, got to seem him play with the wounded warrior team. They live together in Puyallup, where Mark has watched the softball team help his son recover from the war more than any other activity.
“I don’t even know to tell you how proud I am of him and the way he has bounced back from his injury,” Mark Clark said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646