Bays' focus ability, not disability Club carries hardball attitude into wheelchair softball games


When he speeds to first base to beat out a throw, Craig Cook pictures himself as Rickey Henderson. When he goes into the hole at shortstop, he's Ozzie Smith.

"I've always felt that if you work hard at what you do, you can do anything that you want," Cook said. "I always work hard, and I don't give up. You have to be the best that you can be."

Cook brings that attitude with him to the field. He also brings a wheelchair, as do his teammates on the Baltimore Bays softball team.

Sometimes Cook, who had both legs amputated when he was 9 after being hit by a train on the railroad tracks on Monroe Street near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, wonders what it would have been like to run around the bases.

But Cook, 32, doesn't consider his disability much of a problem when he's competing in athletics.

Against other wheelchair athletes, he's confident, and his athleticism makes one wonder what type of phenom he'd be had he not lost his legs.

"He [Smith] gets to anything at shortstop, and I feel that I can get to anything, too," Cook said.

And reminiscent of Henderson, Cook believes he can beat out almost any throw.

"I feel that if I make an out, the guy has got to make a good play," he said. "It's not easy, because if I hit the ball on the ground, he's got to be right after it to get me out."

At a recent Bays game, Cook gave his teammates a scare when he nearly tumbled from his wheelchair while trying to turn the first-base corner, but he gathered himself and wheeled safely on second base.

Toney Salley, who watched a few innings of that game, was amazed by the way Cook recovered. "That guy can move," said Salley. "It makes you wonder what he'd be like if he had legs. It's easy to just run up and down the bases, but it seems like it requires more effort to do what they do."

Many Bays players played high school baseball and other competitive sports before they became disabled. Such was the case with Tony Miles, who lost both legs when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam, and Mike Hylton, who was paralyzed in a car accident during his senior year of high school.

Hylton's accident happened two weeks before he was to begin play on the Owings Mill High School varsity baseball team. Now, eight years later, Hylton, 25, plays wheelchair softball as a means of a "recreational outlet."

"I like wheelchair sports, because it's a form of competition that you miss from having played regular baseball," said Hylton. "The obvious difference is the feeling, but as far as the play, the game is just slow. You really can't get the same type of feeling in wheelchair softball, because you can't move as fast."

But as far as executing the mechanics of the game, wheelchair softball players are very much in the groove.

The sport is just like any other softball game, but it is played with a 16-ounce soft leather ball that looks more like a duckpin bowling ball than a softball. "It's just like any other sport because you really want to do well to show yourself," said Cook. "I think you can shine more in this sport because unlike basketball, you don't have to play as a team. You can make that individual play."

Cook sometimes has a tendency to try to be too much of a star. In the fifth inning of the Bays' game, Cook was chewed out by third baseman Larry Tolor for moving from his shortstop position into the second baseman's territory to snatch up the ball and throw out the runner.

"Man, you're playing the whole field," Tolar yelled. "Let someone else make a play sometimes."

"Man, I know what I'm doing," responded Cook while in the process of making the sensational throw to first. "What's wrong with you?"

Cook said later: "I was trying to get the ball in at that time and since I was toward second base, I felt that that was my position to get the ball in so nobody would advance. He probably felt that I went over too far, but I don't think that I did. But we straightened everything out."

Teammates often do, but for these athletes in particular, it's best that harsh feelings don't linger. "It's not like they have a lot of [fan] support," said Salley. "They are out here because they want to be. I don't see their families."

There isn't much dissension on the Bays, who have lost only one game since 1986, becoming the premier team among the five teams that compete in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania in what is unofficially called the Mason Dixon League, according to Bays player-coach M.J. Heady.

"Around seven to eight of us have been on the team since its

inception in 1986," said Heady. "We add new players here and there to strengthen the product and keep it competitive."

None of the roster additions have been women, whom Heady says he has encouraged to come out. However, in the Midwest (Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri and South Carolina), where wheelchair softball originated two decades ago, women play the sport, though not in great numbers.

The Bays are scheduled to play Saturday at 11 a.m. against the Philadelphia-based Magee Spokesmen at Lombard Middle School at Pratt and Bethel streets.

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