Baseball, Sierra College sophomore pitcher Josh Eagle says, has given him everything.
"This sport, I'd be lost without it," said Eagle, who is 9-2 and will start today in a Northern California Super Regional opener at top-seeded Feather River. "Baseball made me feel normal, like one of the guys, and it kept my mind off my leg."
Eagle, who has a slight limp, was born without an inner foot muscle that would have held the foot properly in place. His left ankle was fused to his foot as the result of a birth defect, similar to clubfoot. He had five major surgeries as a child in an effort to straighten his leg.
Like any youngster, Eagle wanted to run and play, but he couldn't. Eventually, he discovered baseball, where pitching didn't require much running.
As his right arm follows through on a pitch, Eagle's left foot points toward the third-base dugout instead of home plate. His hips don't open when he throws, yet he still fires strikes he struck out nine and walked just one in a complete-game, 10-inning 4-2 win over Laney College of Oakland in a NorCal series opener Saturday. Against four of the seven remaining NorCal teams in the Super Regional playoffs, Eagle is 4-0 with an 0.87 ERA, 20 strikeouts and two walks in 31 innings.
Eagle views himself as just another player; his coaches and teammates disagree.
"The most amazing player I've ever seen or coached," Sierra coach Rob Willson said.
When opponents attempt bunts, realizing Eagle is going to be slower to the ball than other pitchers, Eagle said it's just competition. What irks him are the taunts about his leg.
"I hear things, and they say things to try to rattle me," Eagle said. "That's OK. If that makes them more confident, go ahead. It just motivates me even more."
Said Sierra assistant coach Ryan Stevens, "Josh always finds a way. Nothing bothers him, and the guys feed off him unlike anyone I've ever seen."
But there were doubts. Facing high school players in Antioch is one thing. Could Eagle find the strike zone in the Big 8 Conference, rated as the state's best?
"The first time I saw him last year, I thought, 'No way,' but he does it, and he's very good," Sierra pitching coach Bret Hemphill said.
Added Sierra teammate Brad Gerig, "Josh is unreal. He's earned everything, all this success."
At age 2, Eagle was fitted with a brace. By 7, he was pitching in youth leagues. By 8, he was a Pony League All-Star. When he was 9, Eagle underwent a procedure at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Sacramento to install a device on the outside of his leg connected to pins attached to the bone. For six months, screws had to be rotated nightly. It was excruciatingly painful, Eagle said, and he would doze off with tears.
Weeks before the device was scheduled to be removed, Eagle, on crutches, couldn't resist the challenge from a buddy to race.
"I always was allowed to go to the front of the line during lunch hour, but I wanted to get there in a hurry, and I raced," Eagle said. "My crutch slipped and I fell. Broke my left femur, the big bone. I felt bad for the principal, who said I was in shock. I think the principal was in shock. I cried a lot on that one."
In time, the leg healed and straightened, and Eagle went 13-1 as a senior at Deer Valley High School. He came to Sierra because his father, Corey, has known Willson for decades.
"I've always had a lot of family reinforcement and support," Eagle said. "My dad and mom (Keri) always told me I could do anything I wanted, and this is what I love to do pitch."