Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Sports

Fennelly: One-handed pitcher Kevin Ewing a perfect inspiration

ST. PETERSBURG — It happens a lot when he pitches. And he loves it.

"I'll hear the other team in the dugout," 18-year-old Kevin Ewing said. "They'll say 'He's left-handed. … No, he's right-handed. … No, he's left-handed.' My movement is pretty quick.

"There was an umpire who was convinced I was ambidextrous. I had a coach one summer, we played 20 games, and it was 18 games in when we were working on a hidden-ball trick and he finally realized I only had the one hand. It was awesome. It was funny. Pretty entertaining."

Kevin is a captivating senior left-handed pitcher on the baseball team at Bradenton's Inspiration Academy.

Inspiration.

Perfect.

There's more. Kevin heads to college this fall and will pitch for Johnson University, a small, private Christian school near Knoxville, Tenn.

"A dream come true," he said.

Meet the dreamer and the doer. Kevin is expected to pitch in Tampa Bay today in the Dunedin Classic. He's the perfect inspiration with the imperfect right hand, the one missing fingers and part of the palm, a stunted right arm, the result of amniotic band syndrome, a congenital limb defect. Only Kevin has never thought he was different. Even when the kids at middle school taunted him, and the words stung, he was sure he was blessed with a passion for baseball, his faith, his family and a puckish appetite for proving doubters wrong.

"He has had to prove and prove and prove and re-prove," said his mother, Kathy.

Greg Ewing, Kevin's father, said, "Kevin has such heart."

"And you say he's going to pitch in college?" Jim Abbott said. "That's wonderful."

Abbott, born without a right hand, was a doer who delivered on his dream, a left-handed testament to willpower. Abbott became famous, a point of light as a college pitching star at Michigan and a U.S. Olympian and during a successful major-league career, highlighted by an emotional no-hitter in 1993 for the New York Yankees. He is as humble and gracious today as he was when he played.

Kevin wears No. 25 because Abbott wore 25. He has never met Abbott, though Abbott wrote Kevin a letter when he was younger, as Abbott has written thousands of limb-different children. Kevin has an entire shelf in his Sarasota bedroom filled with Abbott autographed cards and baseballs and photos, and Abbott's book, Imperfect: An Improbable Life.

"He's a main figure for so many people's lives besides me," Kevin said of Abbott. "To see everything he became, I just see him as the superhero of all superheroes."

Abbott is on the phone from his Southern California home.

"For me, it was baseball," Abbott said. "It sounds like for Kevin it's baseball."

•••

Kevin, who is 5 feet 10 and weighs 160 pounds, usually works out of the bullpen for Inspiration Academy, a small, nondenominational Christian school. But he recently made his first start of the season in St. Petersburg against Lakewood High. He threw five innings for the win, allowing just two hits while striking out three. Kevin said his fastball tops out at around 80 mph, but he mixes speeds with changeups and curves. He tossed three complete-game shutouts last season.

Kevin rests his glove on his right forearm as he prepares to pitch. As soon as he throws, he slips his throwing hand into his glove. It's an incredibly seamless transition. Blink and you miss it. He was around 8 when he learned about Abbott.

He spent countless hours watching video of Abbott pitching. He spent more time than that throwing a tennis ball against a wall to perfect his delivery and transition. It's remarkable to watch him, especially on balls hit to the mound. In one motion, Kevin returns the glove to his right arm and takes the ball in his left hand, then fires. He had 10 assists in a game last summer. He can play infield and outfield. He used to bat, slapping hits, before he dedicated himself to his pitching.

"How do any of us put limitations on ourselves?" Inspiration coach Curtis Wilson said. "How do any of us ever say we can't do something?"

Kevin previously attended Sarasota High and tried out for the school's powerhouse baseball team in ninth and 10th grades. He made it past the first cut both times but didn't make the team. Everyone admired his desire. After Kevin was cut a second time, he was offered the position of team manager.

"I loved his response," Sarasota coach Clyde Metcalf said. "He said, 'I'm going to go find a place to play the game.' Some kids quit, move on. It's magnificent that he found a place and that he's going to pitch in college."

After the win over Lakewood, the teams lined up to shake hands. There have been some awkward moments over the years, players and even coaches pulling back when they see Kevin offer his right hand. Kevin rolls along.

"It's me," he said, smiling. "It's who I am. I'm putting that hand out there."

Someone told Abbott about Kevin's handshakes.

"I didn't use my right hand," Abbott said, laughing. "I had about 30 different handshakes with my left hand, manipulating it to shake one way or another. But I really admire Kevin's spirit, that he's not afraid or backing down. I admire that.

"I believe there's a strength and a resiliency within us that we don't always appreciate until it's tested. There will be teasing and those lonely feelings of being different. But every time you're able to rise above it a little bit, you build that strength. And over time, those feelings of loneliness and those insecure moments begin to disappear. I hope that's been Kevin's experience. It was mine, anyway."

Beautiful words. As are these from Lakewood centerfielder and leadoff batter Dontae Mitchell.

"I can't imagine how much heart that guy has," he said of Kevin. "When I saw him warm up, I thought 'Man, that's awesome. He's awesome.' "

As far as Kevin is concerned, he has no choice. He's from a family of fighters.

•••

In 2003, Greg Ewing was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2010, Kevin's older sister, Rachel, was diagnosed with leukemia during her sophomore year at Eckerd College. She was 19. Kevin was 11. They are ultraclose. Rachel had 21/2 years of chemotherapy, her mother driving her to St. Petersburg's All Children's Hospital. Then Greg had an MS relapse and had to stop working. Greg and Kathy Ewing went through their life savings. They nearly lost their house. They persevered with help from friends, faith and each other.

"My sister never complained," Kevin said. "The first thing she said to me was, 'I know God is with me. Now, how do we get to the other side?' Compared to her, what I've gone through is nothing."

"Kevin has never let anything stop him," Rachel said. "Dad has been strong. And Mom has been the rock."

"We feed off each other," Greg said.

Rachel, who is in remission, graduated from Eckerd with a degree in marine biology and works at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. And her kid brother will pitch in college for Johnson, which is Division II and a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association. The Ewings cried happy tears when Kevin was offered a roster spot after a February tryout.

It's like Kevin tells the kids he counsels at limb-different camps: "The only thing that can stop you is you."

He's a straight-A student. He'd like to be a sports analyst … after he makes the majors like his superhero.

Abbott retired from baseball in 1999. He turns 50 in September. He is married and has two daughters. He does community work for the Angels, one of his former teams, and Major League Baseball and Little League. Abbott also travels the country for speaking appearances. He reaches out to children and families who have contacted him for advice and encouragement.

"Maybe I've touched them in some small way," Abbott said. "Everything isn't perfect. But you have the strength. You're up to the challenge. Live it. Embrace it. It sounds like that's what Kevin has done."

You can only hope they'll meet one day. And shake hands.

     
     
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