WAXAHACHIE, TEXAS - In the game of baseball, the odds are stacked against those who play it.
Ted Williams, the all-time record-holder for career on-base percentage and arguably the greatest hitter all-time, failed to reach base more than half the time he came to bat.
Ty Cobb, the owner of the best career batting average in MLB history, failed to get a hit almost 64 percent of the time.
Hitting a round ball with a round bat is one of the toughest things to do in sports, and tossing that same, 9.5-ounce ball of cork, yarn and canvas over an 18-inch-wide plate is no walk in the park.
And all that is if you have two hands.
For Waxahachie freshman Cristian Gonzalez, the typical obstacles baseball players face are child’s play.
He was born with a rare hand disorder called Symbrachydactyly. People with Symbrachydactyly are born with short or missing fingers. Cristian’s left hand didn’t fully develop.
According to the Texas Children’s Hospital, it occurs in just one in every 32,000 live births.
Cristian, 15, pitches and plays first base for the Waxahachie Indians. And he does it differently than most anyone you’ve ever seen play the game.
“I’ll catch [the ball], and as soon as I catch it I’ll put it under my arm,” Cristian said of his unique transition from catch to throw -- obviously a vital skill in baseball. “Then I’ll lift the glove up with my other hand and the ball will come out, and I catch the ball. Then I’ll throw it.”
Keep in mind that an average base-runner in high school takes about four or five seconds to run from base to base. In the game we went to watch Cristian pitch, each of the first four outs came on ground balls back to the mound.
“Smooth” is the word Waxahachie head baseball coach Tracy Wood used to describe Cristian on the baseball field.
“You’re just kind of enamored a little bit with the smoothness of the way he throws the ball and moves the glove and the way it all works,” he said. “It’s pretty impressive to watch.”
“Now everything is real fluid, nothing’s mechanical,” said Cristian’s step dad, Zack Vasquez, who gets credit for helping Cristian develop the fundamentals of one-handed baseball. “It’s like second nature now. Just putting in a lot of work. He’s gotta work twice as hard, really.”
The most fascinating thing about watching Cristian pitch, though, is that you may not even notice what he’s doing, unless of course you’re looking for it.
Wood shared an anecdote from one of the school’s baseball camps last year. He was already privy to Cristian’s rare ability, but his varsity players weren’t -- even while watching him play.
“We had been at the camp for two hours before they even knew about any disability that he might’ve had, because that’s how smooth he is when he catches and throws,” Wood said.
Cristian said an umpire once went the majority of a game without noticing what was happening.
“He called a balk on me because I wouldn’t put the glove in all the way,” he said. “That’s when he realized I had one hand because he realized I couldn’t hold the glove at the same time.”
How can you watch a game without noticing a kid pitching with one hand? Part of that answer is simple: He’s a pretty darned good baseball player.
He had logged three of his team’s four wins in district, his parents said. He got the win when we watched, falling just short of a shutout -- and both Cristian and his coach told us he didn’t have his best curveball that day.
“He’s a key member of the team,” said Brad Davis, the freshman team’s coach. “Almost every time he pitches, it’s nails. He’s the ace where you got that automatic win.”
Cristian has dreams of continuing his baseball career throughout his four years at Waxahachie High School, and even beyond. And he has the right people in his corner.
“I think before it’s all said and done this kid will be a varsity baseball player,” Wood said.
A blessing at birth
Vanessa Vasquez is a proud mom. She thanks God for her son.
“He just seems like a saint that’s here in disguise,” she said, “because not only does he have a heart for the game, he has a heart for life in general.”
But Vanessa has an appreciation for her son unlike many moms. Her first baby boy was stillborn.
That experience made her nervous while carrying Cristian. She never saw her son’s left hand on sonograms during the pregnancy, meaning she didn’t know about the Symbrachydactyly until he was born.
“They wouldn’t let me see him for a little while, and of course I was nervous,” she said. Then doctors came out and gave her the news.
“When they told me I was like ‘I don’t care. Is he breathing? That’s all I care about,’” Vanessa said.
It’s all relative, as they say.
Vanessa’s appreciation for her son’s ability -- both on the field and off -- is pretty clear.
“And to think that when children have any kind of disability, the first thing you think of is, ‘Why me,’” Vanessa said. “But I’m saying ‘Why me?’ for the opposite reason. Why do I deserve such a good kid?”
It’s clear that a 15-year-old who can throw, catch and hit with just one hand is something special. But in this case, a special family helped foster Cristian’s unlikely baseball career.
“It’s impressive that he’s had parents that have obviously pushed him and encouraged him to don’t let anything hold you back,” Wood said.
“[My parents have] always been there for me,” Cristian said with a tear in his eye. “They’re always talking about how they see me pursuing my dreams and always being there for me.”
A love of the game
Cristian has been going to Scottish Rite Hospital for treatment since he was six months old.
It wasn’t long after that that he told his parents he found his passion.
“When he was walking and barely saying a few words he said, ‘I want to play baseball,’” Vanessa said.
The hospital molded him a prosthetic, which attaches to his left hand to help him grip things. It’s meant to assist with everyday activities that two-handed people mostly take for granted.
But Cristian does things his way. He only uses the prosthetic to help him bat -- gripping a bat with any sort of strength is impossible without it.
His step dad even had a batting glove sewn onto the prosthetic. Baseball is, after all, Cristian’s passion.
“I just get this feeling when the game’s gonna start,” he said. “The intensity and the adrenaline, I love it.”
“I think it just makes him feel normal,” Elijio Gonzalez said. “He’s out doing what every kid does, just playing baseball. Just a ball and a glove, like the kids from The Sandlot.”
Cristian is too humble to say flat-out that he inspires others. But he admits he’s passing on his love for the game to those who look up to him.
“My cousins and now my little brother -- he’s two years old -- they do everything I do. They want to play baseball now because of me,” he said.
A Major League precedent
Cristian’s goal is to one day play for the Texas Rangers. It’s a lofty goal for any young player, regardless of how many hands they might have.
But there is precedent for such a success story.
Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand, pitched 10 years in the major leagues between 1989 and 1999. He pitched in a combined 263 games for the California Angels, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers.
He lost more than he won, but hey, that’s baseball.
In his autobiography, Abbott summed up the importance of baseball in the life of a man with one hand.
“Baseball helped,” he wrote. “It leveled the playing field, then placed me above it -- ten and a half inches above it, on the pitcher’s mound. The rest was about results, and not about who learned to tie his shoes first or who could button his shirt fastest or who looked like what.”
For Cristian, it’s a level playing field, too. One on which he’s found belonging and success. And maybe he’ll keep overcoming the odds all the way to the big leagues.
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