Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser meets Hunter Brown
Hunter Brown, a 9-year-old boy, woke up on Friday and asked his mother whether he had to go to school. After all, this was the day when he’d get to celebrate his new skill.
That afternoon, there would be a tailgate to celebrate the end of the semester for some students in the MU School for Health Professions. Hunter — from Ashland, Mo., just outside Columbia — would see the two occupational therapy students who taught him to catch and throw a baseball with his right hand, Makayla Thompson and Lyndi Plattner. The three of them, along with Hunter’s parents and other family, would then head uphill toward Taylor Stadium.
Trey Harris, a Mizzou outfielder, would compliment Hunter on his high-top sneakers with blue laces. Catcher Brett Bond would give Hunter a baseball. Hunter, wearing a custom Mizzou baseball jersey that had his last name on the back, would throw out the first pitch before Missouri’s game against Georgia on Friday night. He would say “Play ball,” too.
“You just got to gun one in there!” Kyle Faulkner, one of Hunter’s former student occupational therapists, said via Facetime. “You nervous?”
“Yeah,” Hunter said.
After a stroke at birth, Hunter was diagnosed with hemiplegic cerebral palsy, so the left side of his body struggles with pain, weakness and muscle control. None of that is immediately noticeable in his gait. But his left arm moves a bit slower than his right, and when he runs up to his dad for a hug, he wraps only his right arm around him.
Hunter has seen occupational and physical therapists since he was a baby, and he has visited TigerOT, an MU learning clinic, for about two years. The goal of the clinic is to help patients learn to accomplish whatever physical tasks become their goals.
Through TigerOT, Hunter has learned to put on his socks and to button his pants. More recently, he has wanted to move from adaptive sports to non-adaptive ones to the ones that some of his friends play.
First, Hunter learned to dribble a basketball with both hands, to be able to cross over from side to side, despite his left arm requiring eight shots of botox every three months just so that his hand doesn’t close into a fist. Faulkner, the old occupational therapist, taught Hunter that, and Thompson and Plattner continued working on the skill into the spring semester — until Hunter told them it was time for a change.
Basketball season was almost over, he told them. Baseball season was approaching, and Hunter needed to learn to catch a ball with a glove over his right hand, tuck the glove between his left arm and chest, pull the ball out with his right hand and make a throw.
“He works with the girls, and we practice at home a lot,” his mother, Bobbie Clark, said.
Which made Hunter feel self-assured when a coach for his non-adaptive Little League team — unaware of the boy’s work with TigerOT — said Hunter had his glove on the wrong hand for someone who throws right-handed. Hunter said he had the proper glove, and he told his coach to throw him the ball.
Hunter caught it, tucked the glove against his body and threw.
“You’ve definitely seen his confidence grow,” Thompson said.
Hunter grew frustrated during some TigerOT visits. So much of each 45-minute session was focused on the same movement, and sometimes Hunter said he really just wanted to catch with his left hand.
“There are definitely rough days,” Plattner said, “but there’s also the day where he ran downstairs and said, ‘Mom, I just caught a baseball for the first time.’”
Hunter said prior to the first pitch that he was nervous, but he didn’t show it. He rifled a ball at Thompson, payback for her throwing a hard one at him. When Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser walked up to Hunter, the boy showed Bieser the grip he would deploy for his big moment.
Hunter took the mound a bit later. And just as the PA announcer finished introducing him, he sent his pitch to the plate.