Long road to the diamond: Infanger overcomes 20 surgeries to pitch for Osakis
Isaac Infanger was a third-grader more than 1,000 miles from home at the Sinai Hospital in Baltimore recovering from another surgery in 2008.
What would have been a scary situation for most kids was nothing new for him. Isaac, now 18 and a senior at Osakis High School, has had 20 surgeries to try and fix issues that stem from a condition called Leg Length Discrepancy. This visit to Baltimore, though, was supposed to finally be a solution.
"We'd flown out there to see a specialist," Isaac's father, Bill, said. "He had basically promised us he could fix this...85 percent chance he could fix this."
Isaac was there for more than seven weeks to work with their physical therapists. Members of his family took turns flying out east to be with him as they stayed at the Hackerman-Patz House, affordable housing suites for patients and their families on the Sinai Hospital Campus.
Isaac was confined to a wheelchair after surgery. He couldn't walk, but he was given permission to stand if needed.
The idea was he could go to the bathroom or pick something up off a table. Isaac had other ideas. There were no baseball fields in the immediate area, but there was a parking lot with enough room to toss a ball. He just needed to talk his dad into taking him down there.
"Here we are in the parking lot in downtown Baltimore at this Hackerman-Patz House and we're playing catch," Bill said. "That was his first goal after surgery. It wasn't walking. It was playing catch in the parking lot."
Lifetime worth of challenges
That Isaac would love sports might have seemed inevitable for those who know the Infangers.
Bill played football and baseball in Alexandria and is the head football coach and assistant baseball coach at Osakis. His wife, Amy, was a co-female athlete of the year in Osakis while playing tennis, basketball and golf in high school. Their youngest son, Hunter, is a freshman starter on the Silverstreaks baseball team.
"Growing up, I was the biggest sport nut you could imagine," Isaac said. "To this day, I'm still the biggest Minnesota Vikings fan you'll ever meet. I always loved playing sports, especially baseball."
That passion drove Isaac to never give up on his goal of playing on the diamond at the varsity level despite all it would take to get there.
Isaac has a left leg that is longer than his right that the family first noticed as he walked around the age of 3. Doctors told the Infangers that the short leg tends to be the leg that causes problems for those with Leg Length Discrepancy. With Isaac, it's been the long one.
"That's made it hard to find doctors who have familiarity with it," Bill said.
Isaac was 5 years old when he had his first procedure to staple the growth plates in his left leg, but that caused an additional problem. Scar tissue formed around the knee, causing it to lock up. A broken femur in an accident sped up a procedure in Baltimore to have a fixator placed on his left leg in December of 2007. Pins were inserted through the skin and into the bone.
The fixator supported the femur. Isaac's mom and dad also had to make regular realignments with threaded adjusters on it in an attempt to slowly straighten and stretch the knee.
Isaac wore that for more than a month as he returned home. He was in a wheelchair in school at first before eventually using crutches. Whatever obstacles were in his way, he found a way around them. Classmates held his crutches when he reached stairs so he could slide down the rail and land on his good leg. His parents even caught him playing goalie in the garage as Hunter pounded slap shots at him with a tennis ball.
"Honestly, I spend most of my time not thinking about it," Isaac said of those early challenges. "I never really let it be something that I think about because I don't want it to be something I take into consideration when I'm doing anything. It's just a part of who I am. I'd rather be able to run and stuff just like everybody else, but I don't think of myself in any less way because of it."
Obstacles can be overcome
Isaac has never gotten the leg to the point where he could walk without a noticeable limp. Another surgery in Baltimore in January of 2008 was meant to clean up the scar tissue around the knee to give him full range of motion.
It didn't work. He required a full knee replacement the summer after his freshman year in high school. Complications from that led to bleeding under the skin that did nerve damage to the front of his leg. That's led to pain he experiences today in his foot as the nerves slowly come back.
"It can be really bad some days," Isaac said.
To Isaac, that pain has always been an obstacle he could overcome.
Isaac would have loved to play football and basketball through high school, but his leg wouldn't allow it at a competitive level. Baseball was different. He may not be able to chase down fly balls or steal bases, but pitching opened a door for him.
"It was the sport I felt I could keep up at with everybody else," he said.
Isaac was never going to give it up. He was the bookkeeper for the Silverstreaks in fifth and sixth grade before throwing his first pitch on varsity as a sophomore. He tossed 14 more innings his junior year.
"I think of how many other people make excuses and how easy that is," his senior teammate and longtime friend Glenn Seela said. "He has an excuse, but he doesn't care. He pushes through that and thinks there's no point in sitting back and feeling bad for himself or complaining. He's going to go for results, and I've always been impressed with his no-excuse attitude."
Ready when called upon
It's that attitude that made it easy for Osakis baseball coach Shad Schmidt to select him as one of this team's captains with fellow senior Zach Weir this spring.
Isaac requested a meeting with Schmidt before the season ever started. He wanted to go over some of the goals for the Silverstreaks and how they might accomplish those.
"I've never had a captain or a senior do that," Schmidt said.
On the field, he's grown into someone his coach trusts on the mound in important situations. Isaac got the start in the season opener with Osakis battling a couple injuries to its rotation. As of May 11, he was 3-2 with an ERA of 2.86 with 10 walks and 13 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings pitched.
Schmidt knew Isaac could handle some big moments on the mound when they needed him to get a save against Upsala-Swanville as a sophomore.
"A very good team," Schmidt said. "It was that game he showed me he could be someone we could rely on. My expectation of Isaac is just like any other kid. We expect him to throw strikes and compete, get outs."
Isaac wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't have any less expectations of myself than anybody else would," he said.
Those who know him best describe a kid who is highly competitive. He's served in student government as president and vice president of his class. He's the student body representative for the Osakis School Board, been on the knowledge bowl and speech teams and leads his brother's confirmation class at church.
Isaac will work at the Tip Top Dairy Bar in Osakis this summer, while interning at the bank in town. He'll head to Concordia College in Moorhead this fall where he plans to get a finance degree before going to law school.
"I enjoy all of it," he said. "It's not so much just being in things. To me, it's about actually being a productive member in this and this. It's not just about being in baseball. It's about saying I've played baseball for three years, and I'm a team captain this year."
'I'm just proud of him'
Isaac called his time in baseball his biggest accomplishment to this point as he gets set to graduate this spring.
"It was a challenge for myself that I'm going to play varsity baseball when I'm a highschooler," he said. "That was something I set for myself at a young age. School has come relatively easy to me, but playing varsity baseball is something I really had to work for."
His mom and dad always wanted him to gain all the benefits through sports that they did. To learn how to compete and gain confidence from it. To know what it's like to be a part of a team.
"What he's gone through getting to this point, I didn't know if we'd ever get there," Bill said, fighting back his own emotions. "So for him to have gotten there after all he's been through, I'm just proud of him."
The Infangers don't know how many more surgeries might be in store. Isaac hopes he's done with anything major but says a procedure to relieve the nerve pain in his foot is a possibility.
If nothing changes to limit the limp that slows Isaac down physically, he's fine with that. From a little boy who just wanted to stand up out of a wheelchair to play catch, Isaac stands tall for who he's become as a young man in school and on the diamond.
"I'm very happy with who I am," Isaac said. "If I never make any effort to fix anything again, I'm going to be satisfied with that because I'm proud of and happy with who I am right now."