Eric Cochran was looking for an inspirational story eight years ago when he visited a softball team camp for limb-deficient kids in Mission Viejo, California, put on by the Wounded Warrior Project.
Cochran, a veteran cinematographer, planted himself in the bleachers. He was there for all of about 90 seconds when he fixed his eyes on an 8-year-old who was working with Matias Ferreira, a former Marine who lost both legs below his knees while serving in Afghanistan in 2011.
“Picture this little, kind of roly poly kid on prosthetic legs and he’s got the bat tucked against his body,” Cochran said. “And he’s just rifling shot after shot and talking smack. I’m like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’ “
Cochran sat and observed Landis Sims for a day, then worked up the courage to ask his mother, Amanda Sims, to talk to him the following day. Cochran was wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. Landis, a New York Yankees fan, immediately let him have it.
“He started giving me crap,” Cochran said. “That’s just kind of how the relationship started.”
Cochran pitched the idea to Amanda of visiting the Sims family at their home in Elizabeth, a rural community near the Ohio River in Harrison County in southern Indiana. “I had no idea the journey it would turn into,” Cochran said.
The result, after eight years, is the inspiring true story of Landis Sims, now 16 years old. The 95-minute documentary — “Landis: Just Watch Me” — chronicles Sims, who was born without hands and feet, as he overcomes obstacles on his journey as he strives to make his high school baseball team at South Central High School.
The documentary, presented by Cochran’s Taikuli Productions and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), will premiere Tuesday on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and cable platforms in the United States and Canada. Landis will throw out the first pitch Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, the start of a July tour that will see him throw out the first pitch at Petco Park in San Diego (Friday), Oracle Park in San Francisco (July 28) and Minute Maid Park in Houston (July 30), along with special screening events with the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
For Landis, the release of the documentary is essentially a home movie put to film. And there are home movies, provided by Amanda, going back to the ultrasound when she first found out her son would be born without hands and feet. There are other video clips interspersed throughout the film that show Landis with a bat, hitting balls off the ground, before he even started kindergarten.
“It’s really cool to be able to look back on growing up and playing baseball,” Landis said. “You can see the journey I’ve taken and the progress that I’ve made and how I’ve grown from being this chunky little kid to being competitive at the high school level.”
The film not only captures Landis’ charisma and focus, but also how those around him played an integral role in helping him achieve his goals. That starts with his mother, who has shed more than a few tears along the way. During one especially touching moment early in the documentary, Amanda, a single mother for most of Landis’ life, the bond between the two becomes especially obvious as they share a hug, a cry and then a laugh.
“When I look back at those little-bitty videos, it’s a reminder that this has been our life, day in and day out,” Amanda said. “People are kind of getting a glimpse into that, but all the hard work and just the passion and determination that he’s had since he was little. For myself and Landis and those that love him, this has been a journey. This has been a journey of a kid who picked up a ball before he was six months old and wanted to throw it around. And for a family that was like, ‘What can he ever really do with this? Is he ever really going to be able to play baseball?’ For that to be able to be shown, it makes me very emotional. Eric has been able to capture some really amazing parts of our lives for the past several years.”
The film also shows how advances in prosthetics allowed Landis to have an opportunity to pursue his baseball dreams. Amanda and Landis spent long hours on the road to and from Joliet, Ill., to visit with David Rotter, who specializes in solving challenging cases to fit clients for prosthetics. Rotter’s work is vital to the documentary’s story arc as he helps problem solve Landis’ issues swinging the bat.
The evolution of Landis’ prosthetics is where Cochran’s time spent with the family pays off. Early in the process of filming the documentary, Cochran would pull aside family members or coaches and ask, “Can Landis really play competitive baseball?” His heart and determination were never a question. It was about the equipment.
“You see in the film how Landis’ equipment evolves and how important that is,” Cochran said. “You have to match the technology to the work ethic and the fortitude to want to do this. It’s the whole package. That’s what’s so unique about this story and why it’s so fun to tell this story. Most people don’t even know this world exists.”
In addition to Rotter’s work, Landis also forges friendships with people like Ferreira — who became the nation’s first double amputee to become a full-duty police officer — and San Diego Padres’ pitcher Joe Musgrove, who developed a friendship with Landis and worked with him personally. Landis will be reunited Friday with Musgrove in San Diego when a behind-the-scenes video will be shown on the big screen at Petco Park.
“I feel like I could probably learn a little more from him than he can learn from me,” Musgrove said. “I think you have to be able to put yourself out there and not be afraid to fail and be willing to get back up and try again. I mean, he’s done that his whole life.”
Cochran joked he had to find an end point for the film “because I couldn’t keep filming this kid forever.” The journey of making the high school team and competing at that level becomes an obvious goal for Landis early in the film, leading viewers on that journey with him.
Of course, Cochran took the risk the interests of an 8-year-old Landis could completely change along the way. But Landis, who wants to get into coaching or announcing baseball, never wavered in his love for the game.
“For as long as I can remember, baseball has always been my first love,” Landis said. “It was always what I wanted to do. There’s been times through the years where it gets rough and I feel like I’m just done and I don’t want to do it anymore. But I work through it and I have my family there to talk me through the hard times.”
Though the debut of the film is the completion of one journey, the story is just beginning for Landis, who is going into his junior year at South Central. The connections he has made through Cochran and Bob Babbitt, the co-founder of Challenged Athletes Foundation and executive producer for the film, have opened doors to new possibilities. During tour stops, Landis will give sports-related grants to local kids with physical challenges on behalf of the CAF.
“I’m just getting started,” Landis said. “High school is a stepping stone to hopefully managing in the MLB one day, which is my ultimate goal. … I think we’re just getting started and have a long road ahead of us.”