Commentary

Undaunted

Originally Published: May 7, 2013
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Josh RuchotzkeRick ReillyJosh Ruchotzke has not let the ravages of a near-deadly infection keep him off the baseball field.

About 20 people lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombings. Now they're swimming in that soup of phantom pain and real fear of what their future holds.

Boy, do I have a kid for them.

His name is Josh Ruchotzke. He's 18. And he's one of the better hitters on the Farmington (Ill.) High School varsity baseball team.

Why does Josh matter? Because he's basically doing it all without legs or hands.

Wait! Kill the violins! This isn't some we-keep-him-on-the-team-because-we-feel-sorry-for-him story! The only people you want to feel sorry for are the pitchers who have to face him.

Josh is the starting second baseman. He's hitting around .300. You don't believe a kid with four amputations (and two new hips) could be that good?

You're not the only one.

Back in March, he came to the plate in the first inning, batting second as always, with Batzilla strapped to his left arm. (That's the custom-molded strap-slash-bat he wears on his left wrist that allows him to swing, since he's got no left hand and the nubs of only a few fingers on his right hand.) He dug his two carbon-fiber legs into the box and got ready.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" the Jacksonville High School coach asked the ump. "What's that thing on his hand?!?"

Ruchotzke's coach, Josh Putrich, ran over, pulled the coach aside, and explained it all:

It was 2008. Josh was 13. He started feeling sick. Temp of 105. Mom thought he had the flu. Turns out streptococci bacteria was in his bloodstream. He was being eaten alive. Organs were shutting down. Blood flow to his extremities had stopped. His doctor said: "He's got a 5 percent chance of living through this."

It was a bomb, only it was going off inside.

"We had five minutes and then they took him in to amputate," his mom, Angie, recalls. They took both legs below the knee, all of his left hand but the pad, all his fingers on the right but three finger nubs, and all of his right thumb but the last half inch.

Did quadruple amputations stop Josh Ruchotzke? Please. All his life, Josh knew his life path: Play all the way through the major leagues, then become a major league general manager. When he came out of the anesthetic fog, none of that changed.

"Mom," he said. "No matter what happens, I HAVE to play baseball again."

First, he had to learn to walk again (two months). Then close his hand again (four months). Then run again. Catch again (thanks to a custom-made glove sent to him by Rawlings.) Swing again. Make the team again.

"Oh, I tested him," says Putrich. "Over and over. He had to be able to hit. He had to have range. And he did. He's been one of our best players all year long."

Remember that Jacksonville coach? At the end of that game, he ran over to Josh's dad, took him by the shoulders and said with tears in his eyes, "Your son is a God-given gift. A gift!"

Maybe. But maybe the gift is a prosthetics builder in Denver named Chris Jones who designed Batzilla at a cost of $6,000 and then gave it to Ruchotzke for free.

Maybe the gift is parents who are up to their haircuts in debt and yet continue to run through fire to allow Josh to chase his dreams.

[+] EnlargeJosh Ruchotzke
Rick ReillyRuchotzke willed himself back to the diamond.
Maybe the gift is opposing coaches who don't say boo about a kid running to first with a bat strapped to his wrist. Or a school that doesn't freak out about insurance liabilities. Or opposing players who suddenly realize the kid playing second doesn't have hands or legs and yet still try to beat his brains in.

"Wait, he doesn't have any legs?" asked Princeville High School pitcher Brody Noonen on Wednesday after Farmington's 8-6 win, highlighted by Josh's 360-degree spin in the hole. "Really?"

His pants cover up his plastic legs and he runs so well on them, only his teammates know. "They make fun of the way they squeak," Josh says.

Come to think of it, maybe the gift is Josh himself, especially to all those people lying in Boston hospitals right now who might read this and decide not to throw away their hockey skates after all.

"I don't worry about the people in Boston," Josh says. "Because I know they're going to be all right. If I could, I'd tell them, 'It sucks what you're going through, but don't give up what you want to do in life. Just because this happened to you, doesn't mean you have to change.'"

Josh hasn't. He's not going to play college baseball, but he's going to be a part of it, as a manager at Vanderbilt, thanks to his friend, St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Matt Holliday, whose brother used to coach there. Holliday can't believe the same gauze-covered kid he visited in a Denver hospital five years ago is starring in high school today.

"In the major leagues, we worry about our batting average and results and trying to achieve this and that," Holliday says. "But then I think about Josh and what he's gone through to play baseball again. He amazes me. And it reminds me why I loved this game in the first place."

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com