COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - Teenage players trickle across the parking lot adjacent to Spurgeon Field in Colorado Springs and step onto the makeshift practice field. Warming up are a pitcher and catcher, their eyes locked as they repeat the familiar catch-and-throw back action. But on closer inspection, it's clear the catcher isn't an ordinary baseball player - he's missing both his legs.
Sporting a pair of customized baseball pants dotted with grass stains, 16-year-old Peter Harper is the starting catcher for the Cottonwood Angels, who play in a 10-game summer rec league. At this Thursday night game, Peter rolls out of the dugout at the start of every inning before hopping off his wheelchair without prosthetics to take a seat behind home plate. His brother Patrik's fastballs and change-ups fly into his glove. He positions his wheelchair into the batter's box when hitting.
When asked about the best part of taking the field, the junior-to-be at Liberty High School says, "Pretty much all of it." And though coach Robert Murdock says he treats him like any of the other 14-to-18-year-olds who comprise this squad, it didn't take long for Peter to inspire onlookers.
"I noticed my first game there was a little girl in a wheelchair and (as) I was walking by, her mom was like 'Look at him,'" Peter said. "So that was really cool."
Soon after his parents brought their newly adopted 10-month-old back from Russia in 1996, he was diagnosed with arthrogryposis, a disorder that causes severe muscle contraction and left Peter's leg's fixed at a 45-degree angle. Despite numerous surgeries to straighten his legs, they returned to their previous form before Peter saw amputation as the best solution.
"In October he came to us and said he had been praying for a couple months, and he really felt that God said that it would be a good idea," said his mother, Koni Harper. "And of course we were like 'Whoa,' we weren't expecting that."
Six months later, in April 2010, Peter got the surgery, but his ambitious, persistent mindset as to what he could achieve only grew stronger. The teen, with moppy dark brown hair and stylish black-framed glasses, has tried everything from wheelchair basketball to sled hockey to hunting, but yearned to play the one sport with which he had a lifelong bond: baseball.
Not playing since his days of Little League ball, Colorado Springs Recreation Supervisor Gerry Strabala searched for a coach willing to work around Peter's disability. When he reached out to Murdock, it wasn't a tough decision for the former Division I pitching prospect.
"When Gerry called me, and said that he had a kid that was in a wheelchair, I didn't even let him go any further," Murdock explained. "I said, 'I'll take him,' because I believe that every kid should get to play baseball."
Once accepted, his 14-year-old brother Patrik - a standout soccer player - agreed to suit up for the Angels alongside his brother. Offering the catcher a brief pep talk and a caring pat on the shoulder before taking the mound Thursday, the crucial connection between pitcher and catcher extends deeper for the Angels.
The younger Harper, who has always been extremely tight with Peter, saw joining as another source of approval and encouragement for a brother he calls "his inspiration." Patrik and Murdock agree that the incredible drive and internal strength Peter displays to take the field every game has an undeniably positive effect on teammates.
"People don't really know what a person in a wheelchair can do, so when they see it, it just makes them want to push harder so that they don't look like they're doing a half job," Patrik said while sitting alongside his brother in the living room. "I think it makes them work harder for it."
Peter's father, Larry Harper, admits that he initially fielded doubts about the fairness of his son playing on a team with able-bodied teens. But when Peter directly asked teammates at the conclusion of the first practice if they wanted him on their team, he heard nothing other than a resounding "yes."
Any awkwardness among teammates disappeared at that moment, and Larry's initial concerns disappeared after seeing the pure joy on his son's face while wearing the red Angels jersey with No. 8 emblazoned on the back.
"Peter plays for the sheer enjoyment. It's amazing, he likes winning, but he doesn't get all uptight about it," his father said. "He just wants to be out there mixing it up on the baseball field with them."
After earning a single and scoring a run in the Angels' first three games, Peter is keeping his goal for the remainder of the season simple: "I want to hit a home run."
And after proving to skeptical coaches and onlookers that missing a pair of legs is no excuse to stay cooped up in the dugout, it's best not to count him out.