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Path to self-worth found close to home A SPORTING CHANCE


No manicured field, no lights, no cheering fans await the athletes in wheelchairs. Their Camden Yards are fenced-in playgrounds paved with concrete and littered with glass.

But within the grim confines of those chain-link fences, determined men such as Mike Heady attack the game of softball with even greater zeal than the able-bodied professionals across town conduct their business.

"This isn't major league," says Mr. Heady, 35, who was born with a debilitating bone disease. "But it's ours. It's our major leagues."

As many as 30 wheelchair athletes converge Thursday evenings at either of two glass-strewn sites in Baltimore: Lombard Middle School in the 1600 block of E. Pratt St. or the Chick Webb Recreation Center at Central Avenue and Monument Street.

The city recreation and parks department sponsors the softball games as well as what Mike Naugle, program coordinator of the department's therapeutic recreation division, says is the nation's only competitive, citywide wheel chair basketball league. The city also sponsors various other activities for what he calls "physically, mentally or emotionally challenged" students and adults.

"For these guys," says Mr. Naugle, referring to the wheelchair athletes, "recreational activities are extremely important -- in fact, they may be one of the most important things in their lives. They're important for feelings of self-worth. They fill a void in these guys' lives."

For passers-by, this is a curious form of softball. Chasing fly balls in wheelchairs, the men attract startled glances from passing motorists. But for the players, it is more than mere sport: Athletics for them are often building blocks with which they reconstruct their broken lives.

Michael Hylton, 29, was a standout athlete at Owings Mills High School until he suffered a broken back in a car crash when he was 17. Partially paralyzed from the chest down, he initially turned up his nose at wheelchair sports. He recalls thinking: "Forget it. No way. It's not the real thing."

But when he reluctantly tried wheelchair softball three years after the wreck, he says, "all the competitive juices started flowing again. It gave me confidence: 'Here's something I'm good at.' And when I got back into sports, I really got more involved in life."

Now he works as a consultant and speaker on disability awareness and personal empowerment. He plays softball, basketball and tennis, and swims and skies on snow as well as water. And that's not all.

He remembers showing up to play softball and meeting the other men in wheelchairs. One asked him about the woman he was dating: "Do you take her dancing?"

Mr. Hylton's instinctive reply was: "Oh no. I'm in a wheelchair."

But, he says now, "I suddenly realized, 'Why not? I can still move. I'm not a tree rooted to this wheelchair.' "

Mr. Hylton is the shortstop in this night's game -- a game as competitive as any in "stand-up softball," as the players refer to the more familiar version. Wheelchair softball is nearly the same, except that the players use a larger, mushier ball that's easier to grip and doesn't fly off the bat as quickly -- or menacingly.

The pitcher lobs it to the batter, who steadies his wheelchair with one hand and swings his bat mightily with the other. The batter rolls frantically toward first base. The fielders, most of whom don't wear gloves, chase the ball. They reach down, grab it and fling it, usually on one bounce, to first base.

And so it goes, around the painted base paths, until a fielder leans over too far and spills out of his chair, or a runner collides with the catcher and both tumble onto the concrete in a knot, or someone cracks a joke and all laugh hysterically, or one team cries "out" and the other cries "safe" and a rhubarb erupts and tempers flare and these guys in their wheelchairs make clear that they're nothere to lose.

There's Tony Miles in center field. He's 47 and lost both legs when he stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. There's Derrick Lide in left. He's 25 and took nine bullets, the ninth in his spine, on a Baltimore corner Christmas Eve 1992.

And there's Claude Hall, ready to hit. He's 19 and was born with stubs for both legs and his left arm. His right arm is normal. He's played wheelchair sports since he was 5. A student at Baltimore City Community College interested in computer programming, he lives in West Baltimore with his mother, sister and two brothers.

"This is my time for hanging out with the fellows," Mr. Hall says. "It's comfortable being around people like yourself."

He says he still gets sympathy and unwanted attention from people he confronts in everyday life. None of that bothers him anymore.

"I've grown out of that," he says "You've got to go through life no matter what people think or do."

He and the other athletes plan to get together Thursday evenings for practice and pickup games until mid-July, when they'll switch to Saturdays and Sundays for games against out-of-state teams.

And then one team of Baltimore wheelchair athletes will travel to Pasadena, Texas, in late August for the 19th annual National Wheelchair Softball Tournament. A team from Baltimore finished sixth out of 14 teams in last year's tournament.

"Everybody knows Michael Jordan," Mr. Hall says. "We can't run up and down the floor like he can. But we can compete with the same intensity as Michael Jordan. We can't score 40, 50 points like he can. But we can score."

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