For Boston Magazine
The batter is three feet tall. When he bends his knees in preparation for the pitch, he shrinks to two-foot-seven. On the sidelines, mothers in lawn chairs pass out baggies of grapes while fathers in shirtsleeves pace. Fans of the West Boylston Little League Dodgers cheer as the relief pitcher approaches the mound. So far, this early summer playoff game hasn’t exactly been a study of finesse. Wild pitches are a fair assumption, a bet made seemingly more winnable by an additional factor: The incoming pitcher has only one hand.
If the pitcher, nine-year-old Ben Coviello, were writing this story, he probably wouldn’t tell you that. Instead, he’d tell you that the batter is a second-grader, too small for a third-grade pitcher like Ben, who has a good six inches on him. He might replay the last inning, when he advanced to first after absorbing a wayward pitch. He’d certainly tell you how he’d been awarded a spot on the West Boylston All-Stars, a team made up of the best players in his division.
While other people talk a lot about Ben’s being born without a left hand, he doesn’t. The Shriners, who have been working with Ben since he was six months old, have asked him to try a prosthesis, one of the latest wiz-bang models. And his dad, a lifelong parishioner in the church of baseball, wants to create an apparatus to help Ben utilize the strength of his left arm when he swings. Ben has one word for these devices: “dumb.”
“Ben wants nothing to do with a prosthesis,” says Susan Coviello, Ben’s mother. “Anything that hints at ‘fakeage,” he won’t use. He feels it would make him stand out, look unnatural.” Natural for Ben is not having a left hand. The only time it’s a big deal is when people he doesn’t know – kids at the beach, nosy reporters – quiz him about it.
The inevitable comparison is to Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher who led the U.S. team to Olympic gold in 1988 and threw a no-hitter for the Yankees in the early ‘90s. But that’s ancient history when it’s 2001 and you’re nine years old; Ben’s favorite pitcher is Pedro Martinez.
Maybe Ben is thinking about Pedro as he winds up, or maybe about his dad, maybe even about what he’s going to get at McDonald’s after the game. No matter. Right now, he’s the show. The parents, the hero, the handicap all fall away. It’s Ben, the ball, the batter, and the pitch. His motions are fluid: Glove shifts from right hand to left armpit, ball slides into right hand, glove slips over left arm, ball is released.
The pitches are strong and sure, and despite the mere slip of a strike zone that exists between the diminutive batter’s chest and knees, Ben strikes him out. Dodger moms jump out of their chairs. Dodger dads send thumbs up in the direction of the field. Ben enjoys the moment, but just for a moment. These are the playoffs. He is the pitcher, and the next batter is up.