Pictured above: Mark O’Neal (Left) Cubs Medical Director and PBATS President with Brett Riegler (Right).
Since its earliest days, baseball has been all about ability. If a player can get the job done; they will be given a chance to compete for a spot in the lineup. And this has always included players with disabilities.
From 1888 to 1902 William Hoy, who was born deaf, played centerfield for the both Cincinnati and Washington. In the mid-1940s, Pete Gray played in the big leagues for the St. Louis Browns, although he only had one arm.
The rich history of players with disabilities did not stop in the early days of the game. Jim Abbott, born without a right hand, threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees;
Jim Eisenreich, who has Tourette syndrome, had an illustrious career with the Phillies; and Curtis Pride, a 13-year outfielder who is deaf, played in the big leagues until 2006.
Today, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who are cancer survivors, compete at the highest level on a nightly basis at Wrigley Field; Oakland A’s outfielder Sam Fuld, is one of many diabetics who have carved out an impactful MLB career; Houston Astros outfielder George Springer, who battles stuttering, is now a World Series Champion; and former San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy, who is legally blind without corrective lenses, dominated on the mound in the 2000s as one of baseball’s best pitchers.
The fact that each of these men played Major League Baseball in different eras and at different positions, all with varying degrees of success, only enhances the fact that they share the same trait — the courage to look past a disability to become a success at a high level of professional baseball.
Baseball is a sport unlike any other. Players with and without disabilities are given the opportunity to succeed regardless of personal obstacles. Simply put, if a player can do the job, that player will be given an opportunity.
But this isn’t just happening at the Major League level. All across America — from Little League to college baseball — players with disabilities overcome obstacles and play the game we all love. Baseball is truly a fully inclusive sport.
While the athletes listed above are household names, one person you likely have not heard of is Brett Riegler. Brett is a loyal son, friend and an accomplished high school baseball player. Brett is another example of an athlete who has succeeded in the game of baseball while playing with a disability. And this fall, Brett is leaving home to pursue a collegiate baseball career at the University of Chicago, where he’ll undoubtedly be a success in the classroom and on the field.
But one thing has remained true throughout Brett’s entire career — his disability does not define him as a person or player.
The Early Years
Brett was born with a clubfoot, a physical difference that impacts about one out of every 1,000 children born in the United States. Essentially, a clubfoot happens when tendons and muscles in and around the foot are shorter than they should be, resulting in a foot that is twisted out of shape or position.
For Brett, his clubfoot meant a battle with hundreds of obstacles: extreme pain and dozens of surgeries before he was old enough to attend kindergarten, endless visits to grueling physical therapy sessions, straight leg casts, the use of a walker to get around his house and the inability to bend his leg.
Doctors told Brett and his family that he would never walk. Doctors may have been looking at his leg, but they did not have a good look into his heart. Brett not only walks — he runs.
Family, Role Models & Confidence
At an early age, Brett’s family — his mother Barb, his father Bob, and two older brothers, Brad and Brian — instilled a belief in him that anything was possible. The word “can’t” did not exist in the Riegler home.
“No one in my family ever treated me differently,” said Brett. “My parents, brothers and coaches all treated me with respect, just like they would have treated any other kid. I was taught at an early age that if you put in the work and remain patient in times of adversity, then good things will happen.”
That’s exactly what Brett did. He worked extremely hard to strengthen his legs. He learned how to run, sharpened his skills in all sports and eventually earned an opportunity to play high school sports. Although Brett played basketball, football and baseball while growing up, there was something different about baseball that really made him love the game.
For the Love of the Game
As he progressed into high school, Brett began to focus on his baseball career. He had become a very successful player and knew that he had huge opportunities in front of him. But early on in high school, Brett, a catcher, struggled offensively.
“I really struggled with hitting because I lack certain muscles in my legs because of my disability. But I worked hard with my dad and my coaches every single night on my mechanics and movements. This process was super frustrating at times, as I wasn’t seeing progress as early as I thought,” said Riegler.
The failures on the offensive side of the game were tough to deal with, but Brett relied on his strength — working to become the best defensive catcher he could be. Much like people with disabilities in the workplace, Brett succeeded based on what he could do, regardless of his disability, and worked to strengthen the areas of his game that needed extra work.
Brett knew that the game of baseball wouldn’t judge him on his disability; he understood that if he could impact the game, he’d be in the lineup. And by the middle of his high school baseball career, Brett was the starting catcher and a leader on his team.
The Struggles and Adversity
While earning a starting spot on the high school baseball team seemed impossible through the eyes of many, Brett never gave up hope. And he didn’t stop working. But when his dream was accomplished, he knew it would come with scrutiny from other players and coaches.
“I do have a different running style than most players on the field. And because of that, a lot of umpires will ask me if I’m hurt and opposing players will ask me why I’m limping. But I know that this is an obstacle I have to deal with. These confrontations motivate me.”
Brett has overcome obstacles throughout his life with hard work, confidence and amazingly tough mindset.
At times, he competes against some of the best athletes in the country, but Brett never thinks about backing down.
“I’m competing against guys with tree trunks for legs. It’s sometimes intimidating. But I know I have the grit and toughness to be successful. And that’s what I know is most important — competing. Baseball is unique, just like me. If you work hard and stay patient and positive, good things will happen.”
Brett competed throughout four years of high school baseball. He participated in showcases, tournaments and thousands of games and earned his time on the field with some of the best players in the country.
College Bound — A Family Tradition
Brett Riegler is now a college baseball player.
This fall Brett will be attending the University of Chicago and will compete for a starting spot on the baseball team.
These are the words that many never imagined would be uttered about Brett; but the people who saw him for his ability, not for his disability always knew this was possible.
Baseball is in Brett’s DNA.
The people who know Brett know that baseball is in his blood and he is not going to fail. Brett’s oldest brother, Brad, played baseball at the University of Illinois-Chicago and his other older Brother, Brian, played at Northern Illinois University — pedigree you cannot ignore.
The Next Chapter
Brett Riegler might not be the next Hall of Fame catcher in the Major Leagues. But one thing is for certain, when he attends the University of Chicago, he will be a success in the classroom, on the field and as a person.
Brett learned at an early age that a disability does not define a person. A disability is just an obstacle one must overcome. Brett is now a college baseball player who also happens to have a disability, not a person with a disability who also plays baseball.
And as he moves onto this next chapter in his life, Brett knows that he has a responsibility to be a role model, both on and off the field, for both children and adults with and without disabilities who want to pursue a career in sport and in other industries as well.
“I want kids with and without disabilities all across the country to understand that if you can battle through adversity, work to be the best player you can be and treat all of your teammates with immense respect regardless of how they treat you, then you’ll be where you want to be,” Riegler said.
“In baseball, you’ve got 15 guys in that dugout cheering you on and you know they have your back. It’s about friends you make along the way and just being one of the guys — a fully inclusive member of the team.”
Recently, Brett spent a night at his hometown stadium Wrigley Field. He stood on the field during batting practice with Cubs Medical Director and PBATS President Mark O’Neal and the Cubs manager Joe Maddon — it was a night he’ll never forget.
That night, he had the chance to ask Maddon a question. Brett asked the World Series-winning manager what he looked for in a player he wants on his team. Maddon’s response; “someone who competes.”
Brett will continue to inspire people, just like he’s done all throughout his life. And one thing is for certain, he will absolutely continue to compete.
To read more about Riegler’s road to recruitment, click here.
To follow Brett on Twitter, click here.
To learn more about PBATS Ability Transcends Challenges program, click here.