FORT MYERS, FLA. – The idea that people missing limbs and digits can participate actively in life does not come as a surprise. That’s because my first boss in what’s five decades as a sportswriter was Bruce Bennett, the executive sports editor for Duluth News Tribune and the afternoon Herald.
Bruce’s arms ended at the elbows. He golfed, he curled, he drank beer (a requirement for both sports) and he used a couple of short extenders to type away viciously, first going through typewriters and then overmatched word processors.
Those little Radio Shacks, Model 80s and then 200s … they didn’t have a chance when Bruce was on deadline.
On Friday morning, I arrived at Hammond Stadium in pursuit of a Twins’ early arriver to camp and noted considerable activity at Rick Stelmaszek Field, the closest full diamond to the ballpark.
There were 20 to 25 youngsters playing baseball, and a sign declaring this to be an event for “NubAbility,’’ with the hashtag #dontneed2.
There were coaches scattered about, including a gentleman who was part of the promotional wizardry of Mike Veeck in the earliest years of the St. Paul Saints. This would be Dave Stevens, born with no legs, and the recipient of a three-week contract from the Saints in 1996.
There was a sportswriter in Minneapolis who wasn’t buying this publicity stunt and, in November, cited Stevens as an invitee to the mythical Turkey Banquet.
“I never did thank you for being honored in the Turkey of the Year column,’’ Stevens said.
Man born without legs gets ripped on Feast of Thanksgiving. Wow! The Turkey Chairman must not have gotten the large slice of pecan pie that year.
“Nah, it was great,’’ Stevens said. “It was a thrill. And my life, it has continued to take off. Check out my YouTube channel [Dave Stevens Speaks]. I have interviews with some of the biggest names in sports.’’
On Friday, Stevens was on Stelly Field not to interview big names but rather to assist Sam Kuhnert in what’s become an annual two-day Florida camp for the NubAbility organization.
Kuhnert was born without a left hand. He developed an athletic frame and played baseball, football and basketball at Du Quoin, Ill. High School. Later, he pitched for nearby Greenville University, adopting former Angels All-Star Jim Abbott as both a hero and as a visual role model for the all-important glove switch from the nub to his hand after a pitch is released.
“As limb-restricted ballplayers, we all pay homage to Jim Abbott,’’ Kuhnert said.
That is the phrase used as a quick description for people minus limbs or digits: limb restricted.
“Starting with my earliest memories, I hated the word ‘disability,’ because I never felt that way,’’ Kuhnert said. “When I was at the end of high school, my mother [Jana] and I started this organization — to reach out to youngsters facing a similar restriction.
“I came up with NubAbility, because it was the opposite of that word I hated.’’
The organization has events in various parts of the country, featuring multiple sports. The Twins became involved when Eric Rasmussen, a former pitching coach in the organization, was impressed with Kuhnert’s efforts and was helping with NubAbility.
Rasmussen went to Mark Weber, the Twins’ manager of Florida business operations, and this was the sixth year a clinic was held at the spring training complex.
Dawn Shreeve, a Floridian transplanted from Windom, Minn., was with her son Fabian. He was adopted at age 3½ from Ecuador, a tyke with missing digits on both hands and undersized. He’s now 10 and in third year at the clinic.
“He loves this, because it’s a chance to be with people like him, and nobody asking questions,’’ Dawn said. “He’s a sports kid all the way. Fab’s already a green belt in taijutsu.’’
The two dozen players were getting ready for a lunch break when several early spring training arrivals — including the double-play combination of Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez — came over to say hello to the two-dozen kids, aged from 6 to 14.
Deacon Billings, a solid 10-year-old from Illinois, said to his parents, “That’s Polanco, the All-Star shortstop.’’ He was encouraged to ask for a photo, but Deacon was way too shy.
This was mentioned to Polanco, and Jorge came over, put his arm on Deacon’s back, offered encouraging words, and the shy face turned to a smile to remember in the photo.
A few minutes later, Mason Clark, a 6-year-old from Alabama, took a different tack. He signaled Polanco to come over, stepped in a pitching cage and challenged Jorge to a throwing contest.
All in all, my first boss Bruce Bennett would have been proud to see what was going on Friday at Stelly Field.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.