After five strikes, 6-year-old JayC bunted the ball and stood still on home plate. The crowd cheered and yelled for him to run, and after some gentle one-on-one coaxing -- off he went. Three outfielders waited for him at first base, but with an enthusiastic high five, JayC was deemed safe.
In this game, there were no outs, every batter hit, every hitter was safe -- and everybody won.
It was still baseball, but in the first game played Friday at Akimel Junior High School by the Ahwatukee Pony Baseball Champions League, a league for children with special needs, whimsy took the place of competition.
“It’s our own special rules,” said Chris Kelly, director of the Ahwatukee Champions League. “It’s designed to be a good, positive experience for all the players.”
Kelly’s 16-year-old son, Sam, is autistic and loves baseball, he said. “He always asked when it was his turn to play.”
When Kelly found out Pony Baseball had Champions Leagues elsewhere, he jumped at the chance to fulfill his son’s dream. Standing in front of two crowds of parents, siblings and baseball players—once for the 5-10-year-olds’ game, Cardinals v. Cubs, and once for the 11-17-year-olds’ game, Diamondbacks v. Royals—Kelly introduced the junior high school baseball field as “the field of dreams.”
That field was the first place Frostee McCuster’s 6-year-old son, Nick, played on a baseball team. Nick stood ready with his glove, smiling in left field and only took the occasional break to high-five his mom. When it was his turn to bat, he hit the ball hard and after grabbing mom’s hand, ran to first base.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to get him around friends and involved in sports,” McCuster said. “He was really excited to put the uniform on.”
Erin Landgraf, 6-year-old JayC’s mom, had a surreal experience watching her son play with the Champions League, she said. JayC has been on sports teams before, but the coaches always lose patience and stop paying attention to him, Landgraf said. Seeing him out on the field with an attentive adult, he seemed to enjoy himself much more than before, she said.
“He’s able to just be himself,” Landgraf said. “He’s able to do his typical goofy dance.”
Jody Hernandez’s 6-year-old son, George, used to play T-ball at the YMCA, but was getting to a stage where he might not fit in anymore, Hernandez said. With the Champion League, George can be his own person, and he looks up to the teenage mentors, she said.
“It’s just fun watching him be competitive and have a cute little uniform like every 6-year-old likes to do,” Hernandez said.
Casey, 9, plays baseball in the backyard with his brothers and showed off his practice with three home runs, hitting the ball each time on his first swing. He did “awesome,” said his 10-year-old brother Christian, who also plays in a baseball league. Casey talked about the game for three weeks, said his dad, Steve Rivers.
“Inclusion is a big, important thing for us as parents because it teaches other kids to appreciate them,” Rivers said.
Renae Ramirez’s 16-year-old son, Dion, played on a Little League team when he was younger, but as he got older and taller, she didn’t want him to stand out among the little kids.
“I wish he would be able to play with typical kids because he’s quite the follower and loves the interaction with them,” Ramirez said. “You just don’t know if they’ll let you play or not.”
Finding things for her son to do is difficult because putting him in activities with typical kids singles him out, and Special Olympics activities can be really competitive, Ramirez said. Dion likes being in an environment with friends, but where everything is geared toward the individual, she said.
“He enjoys just being with other people,” Ramirez said. “They just want to be accepted and have fun doing it.”