Life dealt Austin Abelar a nasty breaking pitch, and so far the 11-year-old Little Leaguer has been hitting it out of the park.
Watching Austin play first base or take his turn at bat for his Braves team in the Minors division of the Pahrump Valley Little League, it’s impossible not to notice two things. First, he’s bigger than everyone else on his team. And, oh yeah, he has only one hand, as his right arm has been amputated inches below the elbow.
So, while teammates and parents have had more than a month to get used to this, a new observer at Ian Deutch Memorial Park can’t help but watch how he moves, how he fields, how he throws and how he — quite successfully, by the way — swings a bat. And after a couple of innings, the newcomer joins everyone else in not really noticing the truncated arm.
Austin talks about how he plays the game with a nonchalance that takes some getting used to, but what’s the toughest part about playing first base with one hand?
“When the ball gets hit to you and you try to make a double play, when you have to rip the glove off and grab the ball and throw it,” he said. “Taking it off my hand is pretty easy, getting the ball out is pretty easy. I’d say it takes about five seconds to do it all.”
And he can do it all quickly enough to pull off a triple play.
“One time I caught the ball, and he came running back thinking it was a foul ball or something and I tagged him, and then I threw it home,” Austin said. “It was super-hard to get it off, I don’t know why, but I threw it home and we got the out.”
The kid makes it sound as if he’s been playing baseball this way for years. In reality, opening day, March 20, was the first official game he played with one hand. He walked, stole a base and scored twice during the Braves’ 9-3 win over the Giants, as Austin was playing baseball just three months after the day his world changed.
It was just days before Christmas when Austin was off-roading with his brother Everett, 9, with his mom’s boyfriend driving near Wheeler Pass. He left the mountain in a helicopter, headed toward a hospital in Las Vegas.
“I got the call at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, and I was up there by 2:50,” his mom, Shelby, remembers. “It was horrible. Everett was OK. He had a little scrape on his jawbone. Thank God they were wearing helmets. They were both buckled in, it was just the way Austin put his arm out. His arm caught the weight of the ATV.”
Shelby, who gave birth to Austin on her 19th birthday — “We share the same birthday, March 2, 1991 and March 2, 2010,” she said proudly — was not prepared for what she saw at 2:50 that afternoon.
“My boyfriend said, ‘Austin’s arm is broken. … I’m going to wait for you to get up here, but his arm is broken,’ ” she recalled. “So in my head, it’s fixable. It’s a broken arm. When I got up there, his arm was just dangling from a tendon, literally. It was horrible. It was the worst thing I could have ever seen.”
Austin remembers it all very well, and while he acknowledges it was scary, he recounts the incident without emotion.
“Imagine if you like crash your bike on the dirt and that sound and how that cut is warm, it’s just like that,” he said, sounding like someone with experience crashing his bike on the dirt. “It’s all you heard and all you could feel. At first I was like, my arm’s broken, my arm’s broken, and my brother’s just crying in the back. My mom’s boyfriend lifts the Razr up, I pull out my arm, and it’s barely hanging on.”
Making matters worse for the family is the cruel coincidence that, Shelby’s mom explained, Everett’s father died not far from the site of Austin’s injury in an accident just seven months earlier. But there they were, together in the vehicle on that fateful December day, and there they were together again a few months later, on the same Little League team, Austin at first base and Everett behind the plate.
“Since then, my mom broke up with the person who crashed the thing,” Austin said, as casually as he says everything else. Apparently, he was calm and collected minutes after it happened, too.
“I remember the day of the accident when I arrived there, and he was holding his arm,” Shelby said, sniffling slightly at the memory. “And he was telling me, ‘Mom, sit down. Just sit down.’ He was telling me to sit down.”
The injured young man didn’t change his demeanor as he was airlifted to the hospital.
“The first thing I asked once I got to the hospital on the helicopter was, ‘Am I going to be able to play video games again?’” Austin remembers.
The answer, by the way, was yes, and Austin listed Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto as his favorites. “I’m best at Call of Duty,” he said. But, unsurprisingly, he plays his own way.
“We bought him a $500 left-hand remote, and he doesn’t use it,” Shelby said. “He uses the regular remote, and just to watch him move his hand with all of the knobs and buttons is amazing.”
Perhaps this is a good time to note that, before the accident, Austin was right-handed.
“The day after his accident, me, my mom, my dad and Everett, we all tried doing it with one hand, our left hand,” Shelby said. “I don’t know how he does it sometimes. They say kids are so resilient and they bounce back faster. The doctor told us if he would have been older it would have been so much harder for him to adapt. But he can grow with it and learn to do everything with his left hand.
“He plays football. He can catch and throw. It’s amazing to watch him.”
Austin admits that in the first days after the accident he had doubts about playing baseball again. But the hospital stay might have been the toughest part of his ordeal, and he was restless.
“Since the day after his surgery, he wanted to get up and walk around,” his mom said. “He didn’t want to just lie in bed. The nurses were telling him, ‘Austin you still need a rest,’ and he was, ‘No, I want to just walk. I want to walk around. It’s all I want to do.’ And that’s what he did. It was awesome.”
One thing about being stuck in a hospital after a gruesome accident: You find out who your friends are.
“A couple of his friends called him in the hospital,” Shelby said. “One of his best friends since kindergarten, Jayden (McMahon) called him. They were Facetiming, and Austin was still hooked up to everything. And they didn’t say anything, they were just crying.
“Austin was like, ‘What do I say?’ Just talk to him, it’s OK. And Austin showed his arm and said, ‘I got one hand now.’ And his friend Jayden said, ‘Oh that’s cool! Now you can get like a robot arm or you can get a hook and you can hook people!’ They both started laughing, and their conversation took off.”
It didn’t stop there.
“Jayden stayed the night one night after the accident,” she said. “Jayden helped Austin tie his shoe, put on his sock. He’s a great friend, a friend that he’ll keep forever.”
Getting out of the hospital and being back at home was a big step, but the rest of an 11-year-old’s life was waiting to resume. And Austin was eager to get to it.
“I got out of the hospital and I still wasn’t in school until a week and a half or two weeks later,” he said. “There was this one pill that got rid of my pain a lot, and once I started getting off of that I went to online, and now I’m four days a week.”
Austin said a lot of people were staring when he first went back, but the adults were there to point out the obvious: The kid is an inspiration.
“My mom and a few of the teachers at school” would tell him how special it was to get back to what passes for normal for 11-year-old kids so soon after a life-changing accident. But by the time he was in school, he already had started working on playing baseball again.
“I actually started to throw when I still had my cast on,” he said, admitting his mom wasn’t thrilled with it. “Once my cast was off, I started throwing a lot more and catching.”
With the cast off, Shelby was supportive of Austin thinking about baseball season again.
“We were cautious, just because we didn’t want his arm to get hit,” she said. “But he was pretty careful.”
Shelby was happy to see that her son was handling the mental side of his situation just as well.
“Honestly, after his accident I didn’t think he would be doing so well like he is right now,” she said. “I thought maybe he was going to be depressed because he lost his dominant hand and had to learn everything all over with his left hand, but he was so determined and he practiced. I have a video of him coloring the first day we got home from the hospital with his left hand.
“Nothing bothers him.”
Coloring is one thing, playing baseball quite another.
Austin said when he first picked up a baseball with his left hand he wasn’t able to throw it more than a few feet in the air. But, as he stood near the third base dugout at Ian Deutch Park, he was excited to describe his improvement.
“Right now, I can throw from right here to first without any bounces,” he said proudly.
And he can take care of himself on the diamond as well. Austin said most baseball players got used to his situation fairly quickly, but not all.
“There’s this one kid that is just like reckless,” he said. “He punched my arm one time, and the next time he does that I’m going to push him to the ground. He’s small.”
He gets his love of baseball from Shelby.
“Whenever there’s a Dodgers game on, she’s always watching,” Austin said. “She used to play softball.”
Indeed she did, and a lot of it.
“I played softball my whole life,” said Shelby, who grew up in California. “I played travel ball, everything. I was supposed to go to college, but I got pregnant at 18 and had Austin.”
Whatever impact the pregnancy had on teenager Shelby, there is nothing but pride mixed with a bit of wonder as mom Shelby watches Austin scramble around the diamond after his Braves defeated the Rockies 11-10. He talks about getting a prosthetic arm and has begun to look into them, and if you check out a YouTube video with him you will learn he wants to make prosthetics when he grows up.
But for now, he’s doing pretty well with what he has.
“He can play up if he wanted to, but we’re keeping him with us,” said his coach, Jimmy Atencio. By age, Austin could be in the next division of Little League, but, not knowing exactly how baseball would go for him, he is playing with younger teammates.
“There’s one that’s on my team who’s 11, but he’s small and has autism,” Austin said.
Neither autism nor a kid missing his right hand gave Atencio a moment’s hesitation. “I’ve coached all kinds of kids,” he said. “Whatever they have, I’ll coach them. I was happy to get him.”
And Austin is playing as if he’s pretty happy to be there. As of May 8, Austin was batting .733 with 2 doubles, 3 home runs, 11 RBIs and 19 runs. He has struck out just three times, owns an on-base percentage of .852 and is slugging at 1.600. Even in the somewhat shaky world of youth baseball statistics, that’s pretty impressive.
And his attitude?
“Very good,” Atencio said. “He always keeps the other kids up, always has positive stuff to say, never negative. He’s a blessing to have on the team.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise Austin’s mom uses the same language to talk about him.
“He’s a very positive, grounded kid,” Shelby said of her straight-A student. “He’s always been that way. He still goes out and plays outside. He does everything like he would with two hands. It scares me sometimes. He’ll try and climb a tree, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ He still does it.
“He’s an amazing little boy. I’m very blessed.”