PLEASANT GARDEN — She wears No. 2 on the back of her jersey, just like so many others in a generation of young ballplayers who watched and admired Derek Jeter.
But the numeral’s meaning runs deeper for 14-year-old Brittany Apgar.
“I also wear No. 2 because I don’t have two hands,” Apgar says in a matter-of-fact voice. “So that No. 2 is sort of in honor of my right hand.”
The hand she was born without.
She had 11 surgeries on her right arm in the first 11 years of her young life, becoming a regular at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Greenville, S.C.
But the missing hand does not define Apgar’s life. She lives to play baseball, becoming a regular on the travel ball circuit, practicing during the week and competing at weekend tournaments up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Maryland. Atlanta. Vero Beach, Fla. Wherever there’s a tournament. Wherever there’s a chance to be just another kid playing the game at a high level.
Only she’s not just another kid.
She’s tougher. A girl often playing alongside and against boys. A one-handed player competing alongside and against players with two hands.
Love the game
Apgar learned the game the same way most children do. She was 2 when she heard the siren sound of glove catching ball. The loud “pop” drew her to the back yard for games of catch with her father, Tom, and older brother, Zach.
She was hooked.
“When I started playing on an actual team in rec ball, I just thought it was normal to see a girl playing with guys,” Apgar says. “I never thought I was different until I moved up and started playing travel ball when I was 8 or 9. And then, I realized there were only guys playing. That’s why people were staring at me: because I was a girl.”
And not just any girl. A girl who learned to swing the bat one-handed. A girl who learned to throw with her left hand and in the same motion smoothly slide that hand into the Louisville Slugger glove pinned against her body by her right arm.
“You know, I didn’t even notice the one hand initially,” says Ava Benach, coach of Apgar’s D.C. Force travel team. “I was watching her, and by the time I figured it out, I already thought she was a good player. She manages to play very well with one hand, and she’s playing at a very high level for anybody. It’s inspiring and motivating.”
Apgar’s first teacher was her dad, a cop who played a little college baseball as a young man.
“You weren’t born knowing how to play. When you were little, you had to learn to play baseball,” Brittany Apgar says. “Well, when I was little, I had to learn how to play, too. There was a man named Jim Abbott, and my dad taught me his technique of having the glove on my right, and then switching it after I throw. It really wasn’t that hard.
“If I had two hands and lost one, I think it would’ve been a lot harder to learn. But this is all I’ve ever known, so it doesn’t seem all that hard to me. My transfer used to be really slow, but since I’ve played so much it’s gotten a lot faster.”
Abbott, who was also born without a right hand, played 11 big-league seasons, pitching for four teams and throwing a no-hitter for the Yankees. But he retired in 1999, and Apgar never saw him pitch except on video.
Abbott is 49 now, living in California, a motivational speaker deeply involved in charitable work. He’s never met the girl from Pleasant Garden, but her journey intrigues him.
“Having two daughters myself, I love to hear a story like this,” Abbott says. “Sports were never an obstacle to me. They were a boost in self-esteem and self-confidence. … I know how Brittany feels. You feel a little different, and to be on those teams can make you feel just like everyone else.”
Such is the magic of sports. The games can be a powerful equalizer.
“I grew up in Flint, Mich., and that’s a tough town,” Abbott says. “But that toughness, in some ways, was a blessing. Because you got out there on the playground and you had to earn it. Kids didn’t give anything away in Flint. I had to find my way and fight my way onto those teams.
“Once you did it, you had this tremendous sense of accomplishment. That sense of being a teammate and competing helped me to battle against some of the insecurities and feelings of being different that I had as a kid.”
Apgar has had her own struggles. Most of them stem from other people’s perceptions.
She’s a swift and slender wisp of a girl, her hair cut summertime short, with freckles across the bridge of her nose beneath brown eyes that have seen much in a short lifetime.
Underestimate her at your own peril.
She throws hard and accurate, although the ball naturally tails, the same way it does for many left-handers. As a pitcher she relies on a sinking two-seam fastball, mixing in off-speed stuff including a knuckle-curve, curveball and circle change-up.
“She’s run into all kinds of junk, but the boys on her team all have her back,” Tom Apgar says. “… We’ve had teams refuse to take the field against us. We’ve had teams drop out of tournaments rather than play us. We’ve had teams agree to scrimmage us, but only if she doesn’t pitch.”
Some opponents have even complained that the prosthesis she uses only at bat — an artificial extension she’s broken 11 times and describes “like a Lego hand” — gives her an unfair advantage.
It doesn’t happen often anymore. As she’s made the rounds of travel ball, there’s been acceptance. Sometimes reluctant acceptance.
“Every once in a while, I still hear stuff,” Apgar says. “If I’m pitching, I’m not afraid to come inside. You get used to it after a while. It’s no big deal. It’s just some boys are scared to get beat by a girl with one hand. Well, that’s not my problem.”
There’s an edge to her, hardened by experience.
“It’s made me realize that life is just life, and you can’t change everything,” Apgar says. “… You can’t get around it. It’s better to face it now than later in life. You face it, and you let it go.”
Playing the game makes it all worthwhile, Apgar says, and this summer has included a national championship.
The last week in July, she and her teammates with the D.C. Force swept through the Baseball For All Nationals in Rockford, Ill.
It was a rarity: an all-girls baseball tournament, drawing teams from Canada, California and Texas.
Her own team is based in Washington but includes girls from the Carolinas, Georgia, Michigan and Virginia.
“It’s fun to learn other girls’ stories, to hear their struggles playing baseball and being accepted by the guys,” Apgar says. “Almost every girl you talk to will tell you the same thing: It takes longer to fit in on a guys team than it does to fit in on a girls team. You bond closer with the girls you play with, because they have similar struggles.
“The guys don’t understand how much you’ve gone through just to play the game with them.”
Benach, the D.C. Force coach, invited Apgar to play when her all-girls team showed up at an earlier tournament and one of her players got sick. She had watched her warming up and didn’t realize she was missing a right hand.
“The transfer is so fast, so fluid, that you almost forget that it’s happening,” Benach says. “I would love for her to continue to play for us. … She’s smooth. And she’s feisty, a good player who hits ball hard, gets on base and causes havoc. She’s pitched, played catcher, second base and the outfield for us. I’ve never, ever held my breath when a ball is hit to Brittany.”
The summer is over. It’s the offseason now. But practices for fall ball start soon, and the tournaments begin again in September.
This is the rhythm of a baseball life.
“Brittany is her own best advocate,” says Benach, the D.C. Force coach, “but her parents, Tom and Tommie, have given her everything they’ve got. A lot of other people would’ve told her, ‘This is something you can’t do. You’re a girl and you’ve only got one hand.’ But her parents saw that baseball is something important to her, and they made it happen.”
Look closely, and you’ll see the feature that defines Brittany Apgar, the baseball player.
It’s not the missing right hand. It’s not the prosthesis that helps hold the bat, or the quick transfer of throwing hand to glove. It’s not even the girlish grin.
But there, high on her left cheek, is a small red mark. It’s a battle scar.
She was the catcher for her team of mostly boys at one of the nomadic tournaments played somewhere in the sun. Last inning. Two outs. Her team ahead by one run. Play at the plate.
“Some kid slid and lifted his cleat,” Apgar says. “It would’ve been the tying run. If I hold on and get him out, we win the tournament. There was no way I was backing down. … I got cut. They pinched it back together and glued it. It healed.”
For the tough girl from Pleasant Garden, baseball is the salve for life's wounds.