MANCHESTER, Conn., June 13, 2009— -- Mark Selavka, a pitcher for the Manchester High School Indians, can throw strikes. He can get outs.
But putting on his socks and even buttoning his shirt is a struggle.
Mark was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that severely weakened the left side of his body. He has limited use of his left hand, and he walks and runs with a limp.
Despite his disability, Mark, 17, has been a sturdy performer for Manchester's varsity team this year. His coach, Mike Kakalow, calls on him when the Indians have to get an out.
"He's a special reliever," Kakalow said. "He comes in when we need a fly ball, we need a double play, when we need to get out of an inning.
"That's what he does: He comes in and with his off-speed pitches, with his accuracy, and his placement, he gets us outs -- gets us outs quick," the coach said.
When Mark was a youngster learning the game, some kids would taunt him, even call him names like "cripple." Mark said he would get discouraged and want to give up, but his parents, Ann and Mark Sr., encouraged him to press on.
"I used to come home upset and sad and tell my dad and my mom that maybe they're right -- maybe I can't play baseball. But they changed my whole attitude," Mark said.
"My dad always used to sit me down and say, 'You can never say that again. Don't say I can't. It's I can, I can, I can,'" he said.
For inspiration, Mark's dad showed his son a video of Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher who threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993. Mark's outlook quickly changed
Mark taught himself to throw and catch with his one good arm, rushing the glove on after each pitch. It's the same technique that Abbott perfected.
No surprise, then, that Mark wears No. 25 -- the same number as Jim Abbott.
Mark's twin brother, Greg, also provides motivation.
Greg has a more severe case of cerebral palsy. He is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or talk. He can communicate with squeals and by raising a fist -- and attends all of Mark's games, cheering him on.
"He's my No. 1 fan. He also loves baseball. He supports me all the time," Mark said. "I thought I had challenges in my life, but he's overcome so much more than I have, so I just really look up to him a lot, for inspiration."
Mark tried out for the varsity team before and wasn't good enough. This year, Mark's junior year at Manchester, was different.
"I refuse to make considerations at the varsity level. You either make the team or you don't. And Mark made the team hands down," Kakalow said, adding that Mark "is the hardest working player we've got."
"When he called and told us he made varsity -- I was just overwhelmed," Mark's father said.
"Ecstatic," Mark's mother said with a smile.
"It was unbelievable," his father added.
In a recent game against New Britain, Kakalow called on Mark late in the game. Manchester was down 10-5 and needed to keep New Britain scoreless the rest of the way to have any chance of coming back.
The first batter up smoked a single, and then Mark gave up a rare walk. Sensing Mark might have been rattled by the presence of a network television news crew, Kakalow dispatched his assistant coach to the mound to calm Mark down.
Mark retired the next three batters on pop-ups, holding New Britain scoreless. He threw a total of 17 pitches, nine for strikes. When he came off the field, his teammates surrounded him, giving him fist-bumps and high-fives.
Manchester went on to lose the game, but no one who saw him pitch that evening doubted that Mark Selavka is a winner.
Jim Abbott said as much in a letter that is one of Mark's treasures.
Mark had written Abbott to say the former major leaguer was his hero. Abbott replied: "I am very honored that someone like you would call me his hero. You are the hero. Congratulations on your accomplishments."
"We're extremely proud of Mark," Ann Selavka said. "Mark has met every challenge that he has ever tried to meet in his entire life -- baseball, just growing up. He's been met with a lot of challenges. He never gave up, never. He's always tried to do his best."