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Tom Archdeacon: 'I don't have a disability, I have an opportunity'

Apr. 3—MIDDLETOWN — It was the fourth inning of last Wednesday's chilly, baseball seasonopener and Madison High School was struggling against visiting Eaton and the Eagles' sturdy left-handed starter Carson Brower.

The Mohawks hadn't gotten a hit, hadn't gotten a ball out of the infield and trailed 11-1.

Hoping to exploit what might be a vulnerability in Brower's game, Madison second baseman A.J. Fugate came to the plate and promptly dropped a bunt toward the mound.

Carson, whose right arm is shorter than his left and whose right hand is underdeveloped and now surgically fused, plays most of the game with one hand.

He pitches left-handed, then quickly maneuvers the glove cradled on his right arm onto his left hand to catch any ball hit his way. With that, he flicks the glove back off again so he can throw to a base.

Undeterred by the bunt, he hustled off the mound, stopped the ball with a knockdown motion and then grabbed it and hurled a perfect strike to first to get Fugate out by a step.

That didn't surprise Jerry Salyers, the former University of Dayton assistant baseball coach, Cleveland Indians scout, longtime area youth coach and Greater Dayton Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinee who had driven up from Cincinnati specifically to watch Brower, who he had coached a few years ago in age-group ball:

'I've watched teams try to bunt on him and take advantage and he just smiles at them and almost smirks a little bit.

"He's as good of a competitor as I've ever seen. He doesn't let anything get in is way or hold him back."

Wednesday, the 18-year-old pitcher showed he can handle a tricky play in the field just as well as does the myriad other tests he faces every day -things other people take for granted, like tying his shoes, pulling up his jeans, or buttoning his pants.

"You just find a way," he said after throwing a no-hitter in the 13-1, five inning victory.

Last season, the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, was a perfect 7-0, registered two saves, struck out 40 batters in 33.2 innings and had a 2.91 ERA. He won first team All-Southwestern Buckeye Leaguehonors.

That campaign got him on the radar of several colleges and before this season he committed to play for Bellarmine University in Louisville next year.

All this baseball fortune blossomed though from an unfortunate start in life.

He was born with VATER syndrome, which encompasses a group of growth abnormalities that happen in the early stages of embryo development during pregnancies.

His issues primarily were with his right arm and hand and he had a blockage in his stomach that required immediate surgery at Dayton Children's Hospital.

"At first it was a real shock," said Mindy Brower, Carson's mom, who is a therapist with Kettering Health.

"He was in surgery the first 24 hours he was alive," Bob Brower, Carson's dad, the general manager of Lawn Plus, said quietly. "That was tough. There was some sobbing."

Carson was the couple's first child — daughter Sydney would come three years later — and for an instant their focus was on their son's birth defects rather than the wondrous gift they had with him.

"Once we knew he was going to be okay and everything that needed it was repairable, we were okay," Bob said.

That's not saying it's been an easy path.

Carson estimated he's had 10 surgeries over the years and that included one procedure that sounded especially daunting.

"They cut the bone on his right arm and put on an external fixator with an Allen wrench that you would turn regularly so that new bone grows in there," Bob said of the attempt to lengthen his son's arm.

In between all the surgeries, casts and splints, Carson was drawn to baseball. And by Little League he was making a name for himself as a pitcher.

Early in his career he was using his right hand some, but once it was fused, Bob said, "he couldn't make some of the fielding plays he was used to making."

Carson remembered those times: "When I was younger, there was a year where I didn't play because I got so frustrated that I couldn't catch right handed. But then my pitching coach told me about Jim Abbott."

Patrick Flanagan, now a pitching coach at Earlham College, but previously an instructor at Hitters Hangout in Richmond, Indiana, and the baseball coach at Eaton, changed Carson's outlook when he told him about the former Major Leaguer and College Hall of Famer.

"I didn't know anything about Jim Abbott before that," Carson said. "He told me to go watch some YouTube videos and see how he did it.

"After that we worked on it until I learned the Jim Abbott way."

Insspiration from Abbott

I first met Jim Abbott in July of 1987 when I was a Miami columnist travelling with the Team USA baseball team that was playing a five-game series in Cuba before the following month's Pan American Games in Indianapolis.

Ron Fraser, the much-celebrated coach of the Miami Hurricanes who led Team USA, was tasked with guiding a bunch of college kids against the mighty Cuban team which had the best collection of amateur ballplayers in the world.

As expected, the Americans lost the first two games.

The third game was at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana and Fraser decided to start the 19-year-old Abbott, a University of Michigan sophomore pitcher who was born without a right hand.,

Since the American team's arrival on the island, he had been the object of fascination by the baseball-obsessed Cuban fans.

A crowd of over 50,000 showed up that day and the atmosphere — with the nonstop drums and cowbells and cheers — was electric.

Abbott was cheered when he warmed up again when he first took the mound. But as it turned out, the Cubans didn't quite know what they were cheering for.

"Before the game I think a lot of fans simply admired Jim for sticking with baseball and competing, but I don't think they figured he could win," Fraser told me that day.

"As for the Cuban players, I don't think they looked at him seriously. As first they may have figured he simply was given a spot on the team because he had overcome great odds.

"Sure everybody marveled, but underneath they still looked at him as handicapped.

"But that all changed ... immediately."

The first Cuban batter was Victor Mesa — the always-chattering trickster nicknamed "El Loco" — who played centerfield and was one of the fastest players on the team.

He chopped a fastball into the grass just beyond the plate and the ball caromed high in the air halfway down the third baseline. It had the same effect as a well-placed bunt, but Abbott roared off the mound, secured his glove between his right forearm and body, grabbed the ball barehanded, pivoted and threw Mesa out at first by two steps.

The crowd went wild.

Abbott got a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

He continued to amaze the crowd that day, pitching five innings and holding the Cubans to just three hits and one run in what eventually would be a stunning 8-3 American victory.

It was the first U.S. baseball victory in Cuba since 1960.

After the game a huge throng of people waited near the U.S. team's bus and cheered Abbott as he made his way from the stadium.

He and Fraser noticed a difference in the cheers then.

"Now they cheered him for being one hell of a pitcher," Fraser said. "He had just put the cuffs on the best amateur team in the world."

Afterward, Abbott told me: "I'll never forget this day. The applause when I walked onto the field was nice, but the last cheers are the ones I appreciated. They know I can pitch and that means the most."

A year later Abbott was a first-round pick — the eighth overall choice in the draft — by the California Angels. He would pitch in the Major Leagues for 11 seasons with four teams and ended up with an 87-108 record and a 4.25 ERA.

Although when he pitched for the New York Yankees in 1993 he threw a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians, something just as wondrous happened four years earlier in his rookie season.

After a game, a fan's request was delivered to him in the clubhouse.

Fidel Castro had contacted the Angels.

The Cuban president wanted Jim Abbott's autograph.

Some 11 years ago, Abbott's biography — "Imperfect: An Improbable Life" — was published.

His story has inspired generations of people, especially young athletes dealing with disabilities.

One year for Christmas, Carson said his mom got him Abbott's book. And the more he gleaned from his career, the more his own took off.

He's played four years in the Canes youth baseball program in Dayton and Cincinnati and has become a leader of the Eaton High School team.

For years Kevin Harleman, the longtime Miamisburg High School and Canes baseball coach who's now the assistant principal at Little Miami High School, has helped local ballplayers find college programs.

"He's the one who told Mindy and I that Carson could play D-I baseball," Bob said. "He said we just had to find the right fit.

"That had always been a dream for Carson and he helped make it a reality."

'Making no excuses'

After Wednesday's game, Carson stood outside the visitors' dugout and talked about how the Abbott way has helped him excel in baseball.

Later, though, his dad said the biggest contribution Abbott has made to his son didn't have to do simply with mechanics and technique:

"He definitely has been an inspiration for him. I'm not sitting here saying Carson is going to the Majors, but it just helps him to know he's not alone in this. That someone else faced this and now he can overcome obstacles , too.

"And it's made Carson realize there's always somebody watching you. There's always somebody who's going through something and he can help people with that by just being an inspiration out on the mound.

"God's given him a platform. That's why people have stopped and videotaped him. Why people have said, 'Man, you could be in on the couch, but you're out here not letting anything hold you back.'"

As Carson put it:

"The way I look at it, I don't have a disability, I have an opportunity. I have a chance to influence and inspire others.

"A couple of years ago in summer ball, a guy was filming me and my dad went over and asked him why he was doing that.

"The guy said, 'I've got kids complaining how hot it is and here I see this kid out here making no excuses!'

"That really hit me."

Eaton coach Bob Ebright said he believes it's that attitude that enticed several colleges to recruit Carson:

"Colleges realize he's had to compete his whole life. He's had to overcome adversity and he's handled it well.

"And when you play sports, you have a lot of adversity. His character, his make-up — I'm sure that's what they like about him. He's a guy who always finds a way to get it done."

That's just what he did in the fourth inning the other day when the Madison player suddenly bunted and he came off the mound and — in the words of Ron Fraser describing Jim Abbott's similar play so long ago in Havana — showed he's "one hell of a pitcher."