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Sports

Quill the Umpire: Whiffle ball "alum" gives new meaning to the word hero

Israel Del Toro only played once in the Walker Wiffleball League (WWL), but he actually never swung the bat or pitched or fielded the ball. In fact, I don’t think he ever even stepped foot on the plush grass at beautiful Hank Gathers Memorial Stadium. 

Despite that, he’ll be the first one to enter the WWL Hall of Fame if we ever decide to have one. Trust me, such an honor is laughable compared to what he’s accomplished in life.

Playing on “Unstoppable Force,” Del Toro, Jeff Ruettiger and Aaron Pilon were scheduled to play a first round game in the inaugural Spectacular Contest of Vindicators Tournament 25 years ago on Aug. 9, 1992. Hey, I know it sounds silly, but I was just a kid myself and thought it sounded like a cool and unique name for a tournament. What isn’t silly is Del Toro, whose story is tragic, yet just as amazing as the person he has become. I’ll get to that shortly.

The WWL wasn’t just a whiffle ball league, though. It was “the” whiffle ball league. I built the field in my parents’ backyard in the mid 1980s and hundreds of different people played up until 1994. We kept statistics of every game and had an official rulebook. The field was immaculate with painted lines, real bases, a fence reminiscent of Major League parks, lights and even foul poles. Surrounded by cornfields, I think everyone felt tucked away from the world during their time spent there. We were kids just having a good time with little concern for adult problems, like paying a mortgage, earning a living and supporting a family, finding affordable health care or putting our lives on the line in the military.

And it was much more than the pick-up games and tournaments because it was a social gathering, a place to hang out and have some laughs, play some whiffle ball and listen to good music. We always had a CD spinning and music blaring in the air and some of my favorite bands originated during that time. That Eddie Vedder guy and his band Pearl Jam’s debut “Ten” wasn’t released until the end of August in 1991 but since I scored a promotional copy we were jamming it in late July, pun intended, our introduction to music by a band that has sold over 60 million albums.

Unstoppable Force forfeited their single-elimination tournament game. Apparently there was some miscommunication between the three players so they ended up not playing. While there were future opportunities to do so, Del Toro’s lone appearance in the WWL record books actually wasn’t an appearance at all. I’m sad he never got to play, but honored to know he was a part of the league because there really is no one like him. He’s by far the most heroic player to ever be involved in the WWL and I really barely knew him. We went to the same high school, but when I graduated he was just a freshman.

As an adult, Del Toro became a U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant. Back when we were playing whiffle ball or around the hallways in high school, he was just a kid that we called “Junior.”

Del Toro was scheduled to receive the Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 25th ESPYs on July 12. This award was established in 2014 to honor Pat Tillman, a former NFL player and U.S. Army Ranger, who died while in combat in 2004.

Del Toro was injured in Afghanistan 12 years ago when his Humvee rolled over a buried pressure-plate mine and exploded. He not only lost most of his fingers, but also was burned over most of his body and was in a coma for three months. Doctors didn’t think he would survive, and even if he did, that he wouldn’t walk again or be able to breathe on his own.

(Well, here’s a first, I’m crying while writing.)

Try to comprehend being covered in flames from head to toe and thinking that you’re going to die and never see your wife and son again. Seriously, can you even imagine enduring that? Those were the thoughts what went through Del Toro’s head when he nearly died in 2005, jumping into a creek to douse the flames and save him from burning alive. I’m such a baby that I whine the day after I don’t have the discipline to let my Tombstone pizza cool in enough time so it doesn’t burn the roof of my mouth. He’s putting his life on the line every single day and I’m lying on the couch watching Seinfeld reruns with a sore palate and complaining. Please, punch me in the nose and knock some sense into me.

He defied the odds and in less than a year was breathing and walking on his own. Not only that, he was introduced to adaptive sports while rehabilitating, which not only helped him recover but inspired him to compete in athletics. He proceeded to set world records in shot put, discus and the javelin. Last year he won a gold medal at the Invictus Games, which is a paralympic-style competition created by Prince Harry for wounded, injured or sick servicemen and women. Last week in Chicago he won gold medals in shot put and discus during the Warrior Games, which showcased the resilient spirit of today’s wounded, ill or injured service members from all branches of the military. Wow.

It’s far more than athletics for Del Toro, though. He’s back protecting our country and our freedoms.

Del Toro is the first 100 percent combat-disabled Air Force technician to re-enlist in the military. He now works as a joint terminal attack controller instructor where he’s able to train recruits to do the same job he once did. 

What an amazing person and story about heroism and perseverance. I know that team name from 25 years ago is purely a coincidence, but seriously, “Unstoppable Force?” Are you kidding me? I don’t think there’s a better way to describe someone like Del Toro for what he’s been able to accomplish despite what he’s had to battle and overcome.

We hear baseball broadcasters talk about MVPs and players being heroes with clutch game-winning hits, but they have no idea. Those guys aren’t heroes. Israel Del Toro? Now that’s a hero, and one like no other.

• Sugar Grove resident Chris Rollin Walker is a baseball umpire with an eye for strikes, balls, gerunds and participles. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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