Kevin Ewing was about 9 years old when he first learned about Jim Abbott. Ewing had been playing baseball for about a year at the time for a team sponsored by Prima Construction at the Sarasota Cal Ripken Baseball League when one of his coaches asked if he’d ever heard of Abbott.
Several years before Ewing was born, Abbott became a household name when he tossed a no-hitter during the 1993 season. He retired in 1999, right around the same time Ewing was born with amniotic band constriction. Fiber strands in the womb had wrapped around Ewing’s right hand, leaving him with his fingers and thumb almost entirely amputated, and development slowed through the rest of his arm.
Abbott was born the same way, missing most of his right hand, and, like Ewing, he had to learn to be creative if he wanted to play baseball.
“Ever since I’ve been playing,” Ewing said, “I’ve been looking up to him.”
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It’s how Ewing learned the routine he goes through every time he fires a pitch toward home plate, quickly sliding his left hand into the righty’s glove he has balancing on his right arm. It’s also how he learned to have lofty expectations for himself. Next spring, the 5-foot-9 pitcher who only has a left hand will be playing in college for Johnson University, a small National Christian College Athletic Association program in Knoxville, Tenn.
Amniotic band constriction is a congenital disorder which stunts the growth of limbs or digits when fiber strands wrap around fetal parts while in utero.
But first he will graduate from Inspiration Academy in Bradenton, where he found second life as a player after being cut from the junior varsity team during his freshman and sophomore years at Sarasota. He will be one of the headliners of the small private school’s graduation ceremony at the Bridge Church of Palma Sola Bay — he’s the valedictorian of Inspiration’s Class of 2017. It’s that same combination of smarts and work ethic he used to finish at the top of his class that he used to parlay his imperfect circumstances into a chance to play at the next level.
“So many guys that have come in here, we’ve heard stories— ‘Yeah, this kid’s never going to play in college,’ ” pitching coach Troy Mattes said. “To watch him develop and move on is awesome.”
Long before Ewing first heard about Abbott, he was just a kid who couldn’t find a sport to play. His friends played baseball at Sarasota Cal Ripken, though, and Ewing would tag along on game days to watch them play. He never actually took the field until two players on his friends’ team quit midway through the season and the Prima Construction team needed replacements.
We’ve heard stories— ‘Yeah, this kid’s never going to play in college.’ To watch him develop and move on is awesome.
Troy Mattes, Inspiration Academy pitching coach
Ewing spent his first years on the diamond standing somewhere between first and second base, turning unorthodox double plays with a deceptively quick transfer in spite of his circumstances. He didn’t know about the way Abbott did it, so it was just whatever worked — he doesn’t even remember how he was doing it at first.
At the plate he was a switch-hitter, complete with the sort of power splits most switch-hitters have when they change sides of the plate. As a righty, he could drive the ball using his right arm to push the bat forward. As a lefty, almost all the responsibility fell on his left arm with the right only able to be used for a bit of guidance.
When his first season ended, a coach finally reached out to Abbott for him. The former major leaguer, who now works as a motivational speaker, sent Ewing a letter and a handful of signed cards. Ewing responded by scouring YouTube for clips of his fellow left-hander pitching in the majors, carefully studying Abbott’s glove transfer to emulate it himself.
“Just reading about him, learning about him,” said Ewing, who wears Abbott’s No. 25, “just to see how much I could replicate him and just learn from everything he went through.”
It’s taken years of practice to get where Ewing is today and now his coaches rave about his defense. Usually anytime he stepped on the mound — he was primarily a relief pitcher this year, although he’s started for the Lions, as well — one of the first few batters will drop down a bunt to challenge Ewing to go through the range of motions he needs to scoop the ball up and throw it over to first base in time.
25The number Kevin Ewing wore at Inspiration Academy — the same number Jim Abbott wore during his MLB career.
It only happened twice during the 2017 season, though, with Ewing coming out of the bullpen. Once, the ball popped up to him and Ewing was able to turn a double play. The other time, the hitter got the bunt down and Ewing’s throw easily beat him to first.
He mastered the movements by spending countless hours outside his home in Sarasota: Just a tennis ball, his right-handed glove and a wall on the outside of his sister’s bedroom. The constant whap of the tennis ball’s rubber bouncing off the wall drove his sister crazy, but it turned him into a more than capable defensive player.
“He was our best fielding pitcher, and the way that he switches over so quickly is just astounding,” head coach Curt Wilson said. “He was maybe one of our Top 5 — in the entire academy — defenders in the outfield.”
Still, Ewing never played for one of the region’s powerhouse travel teams and never was able to break in to the Sailors’ storied program in Sarasota. He played in a recreational league at Sarasota’s Babe Ruth Park and worked with a private pitching coach, only to be turned away by the Sailors as part of the last round of cuts as a freshman and sophomore. There was a chance his dream of playing in college was over.
I might be done. That might be it. I don't know how much farther I can go if I can't even make the JV team.
Kevin Ewing on what he thought after being cut at Sarasota
Even if Ewing had been born with two fully functioning hands, making it as a pitcher could have been unlikely. He’s only 5 feet, 9 inches and about 145 pounds, although some of his thinness comes because of how difficult it can be to work out without being able to grip with his right hand. His fastball only tops out around 80 mph. Under more ideal circumstances, he may have stuck with second base.
Enrolling at IA during the spring of his sophomore year was a final shot at what was becoming a pipe dream and even there Wilson was guilty of doubting. In emergency situations, Wilson shied away from using Ewing at second base, going as far as telling him he’d never play the infield for him.
One day, he didn’t have a choice. Inspiration’s bench was empty, so Ewing stepped between first and second. He was involved in two plays and both times he fielded cleanly.
“Here I am, not trying to be that way, but yet I put restrictions on him,” Wilson said. “There he is, showing what he’s done his entire life and especially what he’s done in the game of baseball has proved that his deficiency isn’t really a deficiency. He’s worked so hard to get around it that it doesn’t really matter.”
Ewing learned to pitch to his strengths with the Lions and away from his opponents’. He was smart enough to know when he could throw his fastball and when he should try out his changeup or curveball, and he was tough enough to escape jams with runners on base.
There he is, showing what he’s done his entire life and especially what he’s done in the game of baseball has proved that his deficiency isn’t really a deficiency.
Curt Wilson, Inspiration Academy head coach
This spring, Wilson offered Ewing either a spot in the bullpen of Inspiration’s top varsity team or as a starter on the Lions’ No. 2 team. Ewing chose the challenge of coming out of the bullpen
He was reliable and he built strength throughout the year. Ewing fitted himself with a gripping hook he can use in place of his right hand to lift weights more effectively and his 5-foot-9 frame should have plenty more muscle on it once he gets to Tennessee.
But Ewing will never be the overwhelming physical pitcher some of his peers are — genetics were never going to allow it and chance made it even more difficult. Instead, he’s going to succeed because he’s been fighting his entire life. Baseball, with that sort of perspective, can be easy.
“We have probably four pitchers on our second varsity team who threw harder or much harder than him, and for me it wasn’t even an option of those guys,” Wilson said. “I wanted Kevin.”