Tom Mix, Published December 22 2013
Valley City's Austin Berg has overcome the difficulties associated with Erb’s palsy to excel at baseball
Valley City senior Austin Berg has worked for everything he has achieved playing the game of baseball.
In a sport that on occasion creates some lucky breaks to those who play it, Berg hasn’t had the luxury of leaving much up to luck.
The 18-year-old ballplayer has made his own breaks on the diamond.
Berg’s journey to the field has been a long one, in which he has constantly been working around one obstacle – his right arm that is affected by Erb’s palsy.
At birth, Berg’s arm was compromised by the paralysis that is caused by injury to the upper group of the arm’s main nerves.
His right arm has limited motion and can’t be completely straightened at the elbow, but Berg does have use of it despite its limitations.
“I actually started off trying to do most things right-handed, but when I was 5 years old, I had a major surgery on my arm where an artificial bicep was put in my right arm,” Berg said. “I was in a cast for a long time, so I had to do everything left-handed and it stuck that way after that.”
Following surgery, Berg began to adjust and the years that followed carried some realities he had to accept.
“It was difficult,” Berg said of transitioning to being left-handed. “It takes a long time to get adjusted to. I always got frustrated not being able to do certain things. I can’t do anything overhand with my right arm, so sports like swimming, wrestling, and football were challenging.
“I still am testing what I can do with my arm, but I have worked pretty well with it now,” Berg added.
Baseball was something Berg would not accept as a sport where he would participate in a limited capacity.
He wouldn’t be denied, even if it meant countless hours of practice – many logged on his own.
“Baseball has taught me a lot of lessons,” Berg said. “It’s taught me not to use my disability as an excuse. I hate having to say I can’t do something because of my arm. Even though I have a disability, I’m still able to perform the way I need to as a baseball player.”
Berg’s unrelenting drive propelled him to the Hi-Liners’ varsity team, a squad he’s been a member of since he was a freshman.
Berg pitches and also starts in the outfield when he is not on the mound.
“His progression from seventh grade to now has been tremendous,” Valley City head baseball coach Trevar Hansen said. “He has done a ton of work to help himself out.”
This spring will not mark the end of Berg’s baseball career. Last month, Berg signed a letter of intent to play baseball at Valley City State University.
“I think it says a lot about his perseverance, and speaks volumes to his character,” Valley City activities director Martin Bratrud said of Berg’s signing.
“I’m really glad I have the opportunity to play baseball in college,” Berg added. “It makes it a lot sweeter knowing I accomplished it under the circumstances that I had.”
Berg uses both right-handed and left-handed gloves. He wears a glove on his right hand when he pitches despite having limited range. When he plays the outfield he wears a glove on his left hand – the same hand he throws with.
So what happens when a ball is hit Berg’s way?
The process seems involved and complicated, but Berg has it down to a science.
Berg fields it with the glove, transfers the ball into his right hand, slides the glove off his left hand, transfers the ball back to his left hand and throws it into the infield.
“It’s a pretty seamless process,” Berg said. “Right away I was slow, but I knew I had to work at it and make sure I could get the ball back into the infield as quickly as possible. Compared to other players, I’m pretty much getting the ball in as quick as they are. It’s just become second nature to me.”
That wasn’t the case when Berg first started playing at first base, which was where many thought he had the best chance to succeed.
As a first baseman, Berg wore a glove on his right hand leaving him to throw with his left, but the limited range he had with his right arm made it difficult to field off-target throws.
The first base experiment ran its course, but instead of being discouraged, he moved on to giving the outfield a shot.
Berg said he keeps the laces of his outfield glove loose so the glove can easily be slid off his hand.
“His throwing motion in his left arm is great,” Hansen said. “When he is in the outfield he is functioning with one arm,” Hansen said. “He found a position to play and he plays it adequately.”
In the batter’s box, Berg is just like any other left-handed hitter and said his right arm does not impact his approach to hitting.
His approach to playing baseball does stand out, but that’s OK with Berg.
“There are always going to be people that doubt me,” Berg said. “I brush it off. I just try to let my play prove them wrong.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562