Alex Luna, who was born with a shortened right arm that stops at the elbow, stands out among the other players on the Belleville Knights of Columbus Little League team. But to describe the 12-year-old honor student as handicapped would be misleading.
The kid can play.
“He’s getting better every year,” said Bob Abramson, Alex’s coach for the last three years. “It is amazing. Simply amazing.”
Indeed, after meeting Alex Luna, you almost have no choice but to expand your idea of what’s possible.
Alex, who this year is an outfielder and relief pitcher for the Knights of Columbus team, also takes to the plate too, swinging the bat one-handed. (Check out the video to watch Alex in action at practice.) He was a reliever in the season opener earlier this month.
Alex has been honing his technique since he began playing organized ball at age eight. Learning to pitch and field “was kind of difficult,” Alex admitted during a recent interview at his home, where he lives with his mother Yolanda, dad Alexander and kid sister Izabella, 4. “I had to learn to put the glove in my right arm so I wouldn’t drop the ball. I had to learn to do it fast, too.”
“That was one of the things with his pitching, learning to put the glove back on fast,” said the elder Alexander Luna, an elevator and wheelchair-lift mechanic.
Apparently, however, Alex has gotten the hang of it.
“He follows through on his pitches. He throws some heat for a 12-year-old,” said Abramson. “He’s going to strike out some kids this year.”
Asked to demonstrate how he would field a pop fly, Alex placed his gloved left hand in the air, closed the glove around the “ball,” then balanced both glove and ball in the crook between his right arm and torso. He swiftly removed his left hand from the glove, extracted the ball and launched it. Alex executed this maneuver, from catch to throw, in less time than it took a reporter to count two Mississippi.
“If only he could take out the garbage that fast,” joked Yolanda Luna, an aide in the Belleville public schools.
At the plate, meanwhile, Alex does what any other batter does -- except one handed, without the benefit of the power that would come from a second arm. His dad said Alex in the past has had a tendency to hang back from the plate and has drawn a lot of walks, “but when he whales it, he really whales it .”
“He gets some shots off that bat,” Abramson said.
“Apparently I have a lot of power in that hand,” young Alex said simply.
Alex has a very rare condition known as congenital short femur, which affects about 1 in 50,000 people. Along with abnormal limb development, those with the condition also typically experience other problems. In Alex’s case, that includes hip dysplasia, which has resulted in one leg being slightly longer than the other. The effects of the dysplasia are addressed with orthopedic shoes.
Alex, an intelligent young man who seems more confident and self-possessed than the typical preteen, readily shows a reporter his cleats, one of which has a lift cleverly concealed in the sole.
Many boys learn the mechanics of America’s pastime at a young age, and with lots of mentoring from parents and coaches. Alex’s dad, for instance, played catch with him, while mom Yolanda showed him videos of Jim Abbott , the Major League pitcher born with only one hand who once famously threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees. (Alex, however, is quick to point out that he’s a fan of the Yankees' cross-town rivals, the Mets.)
But according to Abramson as well as his father, Alex largely figured out his style of play on his own. “He did it himself,” the elder Luna said, correcting his son when Alex attempted to credit his dad.
Coaching him “is really like coaching any other kid,” Abramson said. “He got better because he wanted to work at it. When the challenge comes, he’s there to do it.”
Alex is well aware that his condition draws the attention of some, including a new set of teammates at the start of every season. But the School 5 sixth-grader deals with any questions in a straightforward way.
“I explain, and they get it,” Alex said. “They comment on how I play and they say, ‘You’re very good.’”
“It’s surprising when people first see him,” Abramson said. “We scrimmaged against 15 other towns this year....parents go to the fences to watch, they want to see this. I’m pretty sure Alex channels something. He doesn’t back down.”
Baseball is just one arena where Alex has learned to adjust to a world largely designed for two hands. The youngster enjoys a typical range of pursuits, including skateboarding, basketball -- he took part in a student-teacher charity game at School 3 earlier this year -- fishing, swimming, and, like just about every 12-year-old in America, video games.
But to watch Alex Luna do something even as mundane as operate the controller for an Xbox is to witness a testament to human ingenuity. To work the bottom right button on the game controller, Alex uses his knee, which he jostles furiously to mimic the actions of fingers.
A student in the gifted and talented program who excels in math and science and who hopes to one day to enter a technical field, Alex said he has, in fact, yet to experience any limitations because of his physical difference.
“I always try whatever I can try to do,” he said.