Luke Campbell immediately separated himself from his Wittenberg University baseball teammates. His assortment of off-speed and breaking pitches secured a middle-reliever role. Besides, the freshman astonished the Tigers during workouts by declaring himself a “jump rope king.”
New Witt coach Brian McGee labels the Middletown Madison High School 2016 graduatean inspirational hit for a program that’s in full reboot mode. Why? Campbell was born with his left arm missing at the elbow.
“When I first met him, I wasn’t sure how everything worked,” McGee said after Sunday’s first game of a doubleheader against visiting DePauw at Carleton Davidson Stadium.
“There were some exercises and drills and I would just let it go and see what would happen. Anytime I ever said boo about it, he’d put me right in my place and tell me, coach, I can do it. Since then I’ve never said anything further or doubted him once.”
On the mound, he resembles former Major League Baseball pitcher Jim Abbott, who threw left-handed.
Campbell catches and throws with his right hand and doesn’t have Abbott’s heat, but most everything else is the same. Prior to each pitch Campbell tucks his mitt under his left bicep, throws, then quickly slips his right hand into the mitt. Only once did he fail to glove a liner back at him as a sophomore at Madison. Instead, he bare-handed the ball.
“A kid roped one back at me and the instinct was to (raise his hand in defense),” he said. “It hurt, but we got the out. Coach lit me up about that one. He said, ‘you can’t do that, man.’”
There were a lot of things many thought Campbell couldn’t do. He delighted in proving them wrong. He was a Monroe All-Star U12 baseball standout as a youth. He gave up basketball to concentrate extending his baseball career to the next level. As a senior at Madison last season he was the Mohawks’ ace, going 8-3, striking out 48 in 55.1 innings and compiling a 1.77 ERA.
He contacted former Tigers head coach Jay Lewis about walking on. Lewis soon resigned and returned to his alma-mater to become the athletic director at Graham High School. Lewis is the Tigers’ all-time winningest coach, but Witt baseball hadn’t won more than 12 games in the last three seasons.
That led to McGee’s hiring. “I was in a weird spot,” said Campbell. He spoke with McGee by phone and communicated by email.
“I wasn’t sure how much I’d play this year,” Campbell said. “I figured I’d be a role guy who maybe would come in if we’re low on pitchers. Coach is starting to give me opportunities and I’m really thankful for it and trying to capitalize as best I can.”
Campbell’s teammates quickly were won over, too.
“It was interesting,” freshman Witt catcher Patrick Kenny said. “I’ve never seen someone like that, but he always goes out there and battles and never complains. He works as hard as everyone else and gives us a chance to win every time he’s out there.”
Campbell has appeared in three games, allowing just one earned run in six innings. He held DePauw scoreless in two innings of Sunday’s first game. He also coaxed a pop-up from DePauw slugger Mike Hammel that Kenny nabbed. Hammel feasted on Tigers pitching, launching four home runs to go with 10 RBIs, nine hits and seven runs scored in three of the four games.
“That was a healthy hack he took on the first (pitch),” Campbell said. “He swung straight through it, but you could hear the wind off (the bat). I was like, ugh, I can’t throw that one again.”
No one can touch Campbell in jumping rope. He wowed teammates during training drills, first by tying one rope end to his left bicep, then zinging through stamina drills.
“Growing up, we always did a jump-rope challenge at school,” Campbell said. “I always loved to jump rope for some reason and it always got giggles. I just continued to do it. It’s pretty funny and gets everybody laughing. That’s what I’m about.”
The Tigers are 8-13 overall and 3-5 in the North Coast Athletic Conference. Witt hosts Thomas More on Tuesday and is at Wabash for doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday.
McGee didn’t know of Campbell’s one-armed routine – “Not until I met him,” he said – and likes what he sees.
“That’s really been a blessing for us,” McGee said. “The kid never makes excuses for himself. I want to coach guys who have a passion and love and determination and a will to want to compete and not make excuses for themselves. Luke’s a prime example of what we look for inside a player.”
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