While it has taken perseverance on the field for the Rangers to win the 2022 Turlock American Little League championship, a group of players on the team have had to push through a number of off-the-field hurdles to get to where they are at today.
This year’s Rangers roster includes 10-year-old Clive Whitney, 11-year-old Zeke Griffith and 11-year-old Amen Bunch. The three boys have had to deal with a variety of unique disabilities and health complications in their lives.
Clive’s story of overcoming challenges began immediately in his life. During birth, Clive had become stuck in the birth canal. His mother, Veronica Whitney, explained that the doctor delivering Clive forwent regular procedures and tried pulling him out, thus severing the main nerve in his right arm. The term is medically known as a brachial plexus injury, which has forced Clive to never have full strength of his right arm ever again.
Regardless of the limitations to his right side, Whitney explained that her son has been personally motivated to adjust to being a completely left-handed individual.
“He has to go to occupational therapy and has visits to Shriners Hospital every six months to be evaluated. He has really become accustomed to living regularly, just without the full strength. He doesn’t let it impact his everyday life,” she said.
Clive’s love for baseball stemmed from the relationship with his father, Landon, who is a massive fan of the Oakland Athletics. Clive was the first boy the couple had, so they wanted to ensure that he was active in sports.
“We approached it like, yes, he has this disability, but we always explain to him that he is no different than any other boy. He has limitations, but he can still do anything that he wants to do,” she explained.
The family enrolled him in a Turlock t-ball league, where he immediately fell in love with the game. Nevertheless, the struggles that came with playing with one arm was apparent, but Clive was determined to learn. He used YouTube videos of former one-handed MLB pitcher Jim Abbott to teach himself how to switch his glove to and from each of his arms in order to throw and catch baseballs in a matter of milliseconds.
“Once my dad showed me who Jim Abbott was, I actually cried,” Clive said, as it showed him that playing baseball one handed was possible.
Zeke’s story began only a few months after his birth when his father, Chris Griffith, noticed that he was having trouble crawling.
“We really didn’t notice anything was wrong with him until he started crawling,” Griffith said. “He would tuck his left arm in and drag himself with the right side of his body. And as he got older, he would trip and fall a lot as he started running around.”
Finally at three years old, a specialist revealed that Zeke had hemiplegic cerebral palsy impacting the entire left side of his body. Since then, he has gone through therapy to strengthen his movement.
Like Clive, Zeke’s family signed him up for t-ball. Initially, Zeke wasn’t interested, but in 2020, he decided to make a comeback and has been playing since.
“In 2020, his first full year in baseball, he was tripping up on his baserunning and having a little bit of difficulty getting ground balls on the left side,” Griffith said. “But over the last two years, he’s really learned to play with it.”
Zeke explained that he has refrained from tripping over the bases by switching which foot he pushes off with. And as his abilities on the field have grown, so has his love for the game. He is currently a fan of the Arizona Diamondbacks and is on a mission to collect the on-field hats of each of the 30 MLB teams. He also mentioned that he is a huge fan of San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr.
Teammate Amen is also a baseball fanatic, falling in love with baseball by watching old YouTube clips of older players like Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers, his favorite player.
“I was watching a lot of YouTube about baseball and realized it was a pretty cool game, so I’ve been playing the past two years,” Amen said.
Three years ago, Amen was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. He wanted to get off and running as a baseball player, but it was essential that he was on top of his blood sugar levels to avoid falling ill. His mother, Cesalie Bunch, explained that she had to be on standby for each and every one of his games and practices during his first year playing to make sure everything was under control. This year, Amen has begun using a pump to detect low or high blood sugar levels.
“We transitioned to a pump that has a technology that keeps his blood sugar in range and alerts him if something is going up or down,” Bunch explained. “Coach Mike [Vercammen’s] practices can be very long, so we’ve been leaving him and he’s been fine. He’s been growing in independence and responsibility.”
His mother also mentioned that discipline has resulted from the diagnosis. If his levels are too low, he must take sips of Gatorade or pop a small dugout snack in his mouth. If his teammates are eating snacks, he can’t just join them until he takes insulin. She also explained that the stress levels that tend to fluctuate in athletic activities such as baseball games also has a major impact on blood sugar levels, something that Amen has had to adjust to.
Amen admitted that checking his levels in the middle of games was a nuisance, but that he has become accustomed to the process and is thankful for the resources he has been provided with.
“They’re warriors,” said Rangers head coach Mike Vercammen. “Playing sports with these conditions, it's not an easy thing to do so. We've told the kids and the parents we're not going to treat them differently... and they want to be coached hard. They want to be coached like all the other kids.”
Vercammen explained that it was not in his plans to put the players with health implications together, but he has embraced the unique bond the three boys have brought to the team.
“It's been really cool to see because you want to give these kids a chance and you don't want to deny a kid to an opportunity to excel and have fun and be part of a team,” he said. “It's awesome to have them on here and to have that success with them this year.”