Lupe Corrales hits a hard grounder to the right side and scoots down the baseline. The ball is misplayed, and Lupe takes off for second. Scrambling as fast as he can, he dives in - hand first - under the tag. Safe.
A routine youth baseball play?
Lupe Corrales has no legs.
Ponder that for a minute.
Running is the simplest skill for most young ballplayers. It's an impossibility for 12-year-old Lupe, whose infected legs were amputated when he was 3 years old. He's lopsided below the hip, with a right stump reaching to just above the knee, and he must use his strong arms to drag his torso around the field.
Lupe can catch, throw and hit better than a lot of players in the Pixley-Tipton Youth Baseball leagues. He's the regular third baseman and an occasional relief pitcher for the Bollinger Farms Pirates in the Bambino Majors league.
Had fate been kinder, he'd probably be joining teammates Steve Scheler and Steve Maciel on the all-star team.
But Lupe has an edge over most kids - an indomitable spirit that will not allow him to say, "I can't." It's what keeps him coming to baseball practice, playing football and basketball at Pixley School, trampolining at his friend Matt Lopez's house, and rolling his wheelchair all over town.
Already, his spirit has won him the support of of a community.
"Lupe is kind of like everybody's kid," Pirates coach Tabitha Scheler says.
Indeed, the likeable youth has a lot of folks in this town of 2,400 looking out for him.
Joe McPhetridge who runs a youth boxing gym where Lupe sometimes works out, replaced the worn out tires on his wheelchair.
Elena Vawter, Lupe's sixth-grade teacher, had her students squat down and try to run so Lupe wouldn't be at a disadvantage.
Lupe won the race.
But Lupe says he doesn't understand why others consider him special.
"I just live life," he says matter-of-factly. Usually talking with family and friends, he is reluctant to talk about personal details around a reporter.
The visible details are:
Lupe lives with his mother, Maria Ayon, and siblings Angelica, 10, and Alfonso, 7, in a small house just off Main Street and a few blocks west of Highway 99.
He lost his legs as a youth because of an infection the family declines to discuss. He has a pair of prosthetic legs - metal poles attached to plastic feet - he doesn't wear because they are uncomfortable and slow him down.
He spends a lot of time at the home of his Pirates teammates: Maciel, a friend since kindergarten; and Lopez, son of team manager Michelle Reeder.
Those who know Lupe admire his spirit - and his baseball skills.
His mother, who picks and packs grapes in Delano, is a quiet woman who speaks little English. When asked about her son, she said he is "GUAPO" (handsome) and has "VALOR" (courage).
Ayon said she is not surprised at Lupe's athletic exploits, because he has always been an active kid - scooting around the yard at a very young age.
At Lupe's last game, Ayon sits silently in the stands, watching Lupe while Angelic and Alfonso roam the ballpark.
"Lupe is a piece of work," Tabith Scheler says. "We chose him in the draft because he's a good little player. He can hit the ball into the outfield. If we get some runners on base, he can knock 'em in. I tell the other guys you need to look at Lupe and count your blessings.'"
"He's amazing, actually," says Robert Lamb, coach of the rival Dodgers. "If some of my players had half his heart, they'd do a lot better. He's not out there taking up space. He contributes to his team. But more than anything, he shows these kids what this game is all about. When my players get down on themselves, I say, "Look at Lupe, he's not hanging his head.'"
"He's all heart," says Rusty Schott, coach of the rival A's. "I've seen him make plays at third base that were unbelievable. They have him in the right position, third base. I've seen him stop a lot of balls, and his arm is unbelievable. I've had our guys going to third base, the catcher throws low, and Lupe stops it every time. And he'll get on base just about every time [at bat]."
Schoolmate Jaime Huizar, asked by his teacher to write an essay on the subject, "If you had extra legs, what would you do with them?" says he would give them to Lupe so he could play sports better.
Lucy Huizar and Christy Roper, board members of Pixley Youth Baseball, this season overruled an umpire who would not allow Lupe to play catcher. League rules stipulate that catchers must wear shinguards, but the two women made an on-the-spot exception for Lupe.
Pixley School liaison Albert Dung recalls a few years ago when Lupe jumped into a swimming pool and promptly sank.
"He'll try anything," Dung says. "He had no idea what would happen [in the water], but he dived into the deepest part of the pool and went straight to the bottom. He crawled to the side and pulled himself up. He said he'd never been swimming before."
Wednesday afternoon, practice game. Lupe makes a few plays at third, throws a couple of innings of effective relief, and gets a single and two walks. His coaches and the other players don't seem to give him any special treatment.
"He does more [athletically] than some kids who have legs," Reeder says.
Steve Scheler says Lupe is "cool."
First baseman Jay Chubb says he's "pretty brave."
Lopez, the shortstop, says Lupe "is better than some of the players."
The usual kibitzing occurs.
"That pitch was in the dirt, but that's your strike zone, buddy," jokes Lamb, serving as umpire.
"Slide" someone yells as Lupe scoots towards third base.
The banter is good-natured, unlike someone at Friday's game who called him "Lupita." That hurts Lupe's pride.
Friday's game against the Central California Implements Marlins is an important one, the last game of the season between two teams tied for second place.
Reeder gives Lupe the bad news: If he gets on base and they need his run, he'll come out for a pinch runner. Lupe prefers to run the bases himself, and more than once, his teammates have chided the coaches for using pinch runners.
Reeder understands Lupe's feelings, and tells him, "Lupe, we're going to get so far ahead, you'll be jamming around those bases."
Reeder is a prophet. The Pirates score four runs in the first inning before Lupe comes to bat. He gets his chance to run, reaching second on a misplay. Two pitches later, he strays too far off the bag and gets picked off. Later, he draws a walk - something that often happens - scoots to second on a wild pitch and scrambles to third on a hit up the middle.
Lupe propels himself on his hands faster than most people would think possible. He's a lineman on the Pixley football team and plays backyard basketball, too
He prefers shuffling and chair-wheeling to prostheses, which he says slows him down. But others offer another view.
"I'd like to see him walk for his graduation," says Marty Garcia, mother of Maciel.
Dung says supporters in Pixley "are ganging up" on Lupe to persuade him to consider using prosthetic legs.
"The first ones he had were painful,: Dung says. "I haven't seen him wearing any since first grade. He doesn't even want to discuss it. We have a bunch of people working on him."
Liz Zemke of Fresno, western region representative for the Amputee Coalition of America, says amputees, like Lupe, give up on prostheses because their first ones are uncomfortable or painful.
"That first experience on getting legs is important," she says. " The process can be long and involved, requiring several trips. Stumps can go through changes in the process.
"Lupe needs to find someplace that can give him the best chance to succeed, especially if he has already had an experience where prostheses were not comfortable and did not help."
She says there are many resources.
"Medi-Cal covers legs, Children's services covers legs. Foundations are out there. The Shriners are used to doing things for kids all the time."
Zemke, a right-leg amputee, admitted high-leg amputations present special problems. But, she says, "there's no good reason why someone can't get a good fit on prosthesis for his legs."
Lupe has been a patient of Yoshio Setoguchi of Shriner's Hospital in Los Angeles, who operates outpatient orthopedic clinics at Valley Children's Hospital.
Setoguchi says new technology is not the answer. Rather, it is Lupe's decision to wear prosthetics or not.
"They require more effort, more energy," he says. "Any prosthesis you fit him with will be more energy-requiring, and no amount of high tech is going to change that."
It's the consensus of Pixley Youth Baseball officials that Lupe can participate in Babe Ruth League baseball (13-14 year-olda) if he wants to next season. Lupe says he does.
But it won't be easy. Longer jaunts to the bases, longer pitching distances. The older players are more competitive. It's likely they'll start bunting on him at third base.
If he tries out, he'll be on a team, because the league does not cut any players. "If he's there [at tryout], he's going to play for somebody," Schott says.
"I don't think we have a coach out here that would not let him play," Christy Raper says.
But can he succeed at the next level?
"I don't see why not," Reeder says. "He's good enough. And he gives 100%."
"Realistically, it would be hard," Tabitha Scheler says. "The bases are longer, the pitching mound is further away. But he's such a good hitter, [someone] could use him as a hitter."
"It's up to Lupe," Lamb says. "Nobody around here is going to stop him."
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