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A couple decades ago when Nichole Summers was growing up in northeast Fort Wayne, she wanted very badly to play Wildcat Baseball, but her parents were afraid she'd get hurt. Because she was born with Central Core Disease, an neuromuscular disorder associated with Muscular Dystrophy, she was confined to a manual wheelchair, and this was a different era when many kids and parents didn't understand how to react as well to those were different.
But her parents did understand and taught her well.
"Kids with special needs, there's so much that they can't do," her father Terry Fisher said. "Being part of MDA, we saw kids who sat around and felt sorry for themselves and parents who felt sorry for themselves and they were just miserable. We tried to encourage Nicki to do what she could do and make the best of it because that's the way it is."
Today, Nichole attends Wildcat games almost every day, sitting in her wheelchair cheering her sons on, including Alex, 13, who also has Central Core Disease. He has the benefit of a motorized wheelchair, understanding coaches and teammates who show every day they truly believe Wildcat's motto of "Everybody makes the team."
Alex plays for the Flying Squirrels in the Kitty League at New Haven's Havenhurst Park. He plays the outfield on defense, and when he's at the plate, coaches pitch to him so he can swing the bat. Sometimes he gets hits and sometimes he swings and misses. When he gets a hit, the coaches will kick the ball a little extra into the field of play so he can take off for first base with players from both teams cheering.
Everyone wants Alex to succeed.
"They yell at us if we don't help him out enough," coach Lindsay Schroeder said with a laugh. "If we don't kick it far enough, they yell at us for that."
Alex doesn't always make it to first base in time, but he's always got a smile.
"I'm not very good at hitting, so when I do hit it's pretty exciting," he said. "I throw the bat down and try to run to the base. My wheelchair has five speeds, but even the fastest one is not that fast so I just get to the base as fast as possible. I have learned to throw the bat out of the way so I don't run over it."
Sometimes it's fast enough. When it's not, his teammates grab his bat or his glove for him, or he'll drive down to coach third base.
"Before you see it happen, you're always thinking worst-case scenario or other kids not being able to handle it, but it amazes me how well the kids respond and support him." New Haven coach Zach Schroeder said. "They cheer him on and help him get in and out of the dugout. For some of them if they had never played with him, there's a little shock at first, but as soon as they start playing he's just one of the kids. It kind of restores your faith in the humanity of the future generation."
Instead of being told what he can't do, Alex continues to find things he can do. It takes the help of others, but he's teaching them as much as he's learning. When others look at him because he's looks unique, instead of being rude to them, Alex has learned to smile and say "Hi" or something along those lines. With Wildcat, he can be part of a team, be accepted for who he is not what he has. He can be like any other kid on the field, chattering, "Hey, batter, batter... swing!"
"I can do whatever I put my mind to," he said. "I learned that mostly from baseball. It seems like I wouldn't be able to do baseball since I'm in a wheelchair, but I can because of Wildcat. Don't let people tell you you can't do something just because you have a disability."
Even on defense, if the ball comes to him in the outfield, he'll cut it off by stopping grounders with a wheel of his chair and then yelling for someone to run out and pick it up and throw it back in. While others might be afraid of him getting hit by the ball, he shrugs that off because he's a real baseball player and it's part of the game, after all.
"It's always in the back of your mind that something could happen, but he just takes things in stride," New Haven site director Mike Werling said. "He's kind of a loose cannon out there, who just does what he wants to do. He's just another one of the kids."
Because of his condition, Alex has undergone more than 25 surgeries, including 19 in Boston since 2003 where he sees a specialist once or twice a year.
"I just want him to go out and be a normal kid and do normal kid stuff," Nichole said. "I also don't want to teach kids to be afraid of people who are different."
Maybe the biggest lesson is that Alex shouldn't think he's any different, either.