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Jim Kenyon: ‘A Fact of Life’

  • Hartford High senior Luke Mayer, second from right, is surrounded by teammates Chris Bateman, left, David Ilsley (18) and Dylan Terino a game with Springfield on April 9, 2010. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In everything I’ve read online about Luke Mayer — from his days of playing college baseball in California to his achievements at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine — there’s no mention of his disability.

Just the way Mayer, now a second-year medical school student, wants it.

“I’ve never seen myself as having a disability,” said Mayer, who grew up in Hartland and graduated from Hartford High School in 2010. “It’s no reason to treat me any differently.”

Mayer was 3 years old when he was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare type of eye cancer that usually develops in early childhood. To prevent the cancer from spreading, Mayer’s right eye was removed.

At first, his parents, Chris Mayer and Mary Grondin, couldn’t help but be a tad overprotective. Who could blame them?

Particularly when Luke’s two older brothers broke out the archery set in the backyard. “My parents didn’t even want me playing badminton,” he said, speaking of their fear that he’d injure his “good eye.”

As strange as it sounds, the artificial eye (ocular prosthesis is the technical term) required more of an adjustment on his parents’ part than from him. “It certainly hasn’t held him back,” Chris Mayer told me. “The blessing, which was hard to understand at the time, was that he was only 3. He didn’t care that he had only one eye. It was all he knew.”

In high school, Mayer played baseball, soccer and basketball. (In 2010, the Valley News wrote a feature story about him overcoming his disability to play three sports.) At Claremont McKenna College, a Division III school outside of Los Angeles, he made more than 40 appearances as a relief pitcher.

Mayer wore impact-resistant goggles while participating in sports. It’s a habit, he confesses, that he’s fallen out of playing pick-up basketball in med school.

But he’ll dust them off this weekend when he returns to the diamond in Arizona.

Mayer, 25, was selected to play for Team Louisville Slugger at the Men’s Senior Baseball League’s World Series in Arizona. More than 340 teams will compete, but Team Louisville Slugger (any guess on who’s a major sponsor of the club?) is one of a kind.

Its roster is comprised of players with physical disabilities, including eight military veterans who suffered combat injuries. Four players have a prosthesis below the knee and three others have a prosthetic foot.

Former Major Leaguer Curtis Pride, who is deaf, is the manager. Pride spent parts of 11 seasons with six teams, including the Boston Red Sox, before retiring in 2006.

How did the team find Mayer?

That’s where David Van Sleet, the team’s general manager, comes in. From 1991 to 2006, Van Sleet lived in Norwich, where he ran his own company called Ocular Prosthetics that made artificial eyes.

After Mayer’s surgery, he was sent to Van Sleet to be fitted. Van Sleet has moved around — heading up the VA medical system’s prosthetic units in New England and later the Southwest — but stayed in touch with Mayer and his parents over the years.

Now living in Florida, Van Sleet found himself in charge of fielding a team of players with physical disabilities for the Men’s Senior Baseball League’s 30th annual anniversary showcase this month.

He used his VA contacts to recruit players from across the country. It wasn’t hard. With Louisville Slugger, the Men’s Senior Baseball League and Hanger Inc., a Texas-based prosthetics company, on board as major sponsors, Van Sleet could offer each athlete an all-expenses-paid trip to play in Arizona’s spring training parks.

Van Sleet rounded out the roster with current and former college players. Parker Hanson, who was born without a left hand, is the team’s ace. Hanson, who pitches for the University of Minnesota-Crookston, possesses a 90 mph fastball, bringing back memories of Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand and went on to toss a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993.

“I was going for the best players that I could find,” Van Sleet told me over the phone. “They all love baseball, and they all excelled at it.”

Mayer being no exception. But when Van Sleet contacted him, Mayer said he’d have to decline the offer to play in the week-long tournament. He couldn’t afford to miss classes.

The tournament also fell at the same time that Mayer, who hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon, starts his Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. He’s among 27 medical school and law school students in Vermont and New Hampshire selected this year to work with community-based health and social service organizations. The fellowship, named after the 1953 Nobel Prize laureate, is taking Mayer back to Hartford High. He’ll work with students, taking them on field trips, to “get them engaged in science,” Mayer said.

After telling Van Sleet that he couldn’t miss classes for a week, Mayer figured that was the end of it. But Van Sleet had an idea: Come out for the tournament’s first weekend.

Mayer could swing that. On Saturday, he flies to Arizona, landing in time for the team’s evening practice. Like everyone else on the squad, he’ll be meeting his teammates, who hail from a dozen states, for the first time.

To get ready, he’s been playing long toss with a med school roommate. Good thing. Van Sleet has penciled in Mayer to start the team’s second game on Sunday.

Compared with some of his new teammates, Mayer figures he’s had it easy. “There are guys on this team pitching with one arm,” he said. “Having one eye was just a fact of life. It never figured into anything.”

He refuses to allow his disability to change the way he lives, or doing what he enjoys. Did I mention his skateboarding?

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.