Grove City's Little League baseball season began this past weekend. Saturday also marked another opening day for the city's league that's dedicated to children with special needs.
A cloudy, windy day in Grove City didn't dampen the spirits of the players, families, coaches and volunteers of Buddy Ball. Opening its 4th season, Buddy Ball makes the game of baseball inclusive. A custom designed field featuring a tiled, rubberized surface accommodates wheelchairs and other assistive devices. Buddy Ball president Wayne Kintz explains the origin of the idea.
"I want to call them the old-guard from Little League, folks that have lived in Grove City their entire lives," Kintz recalled. "They saw there were leagues around the country that were formed for kids and adults with special needs. Those individuals said we need to raise funds to have a field so that kids of all abilities could come and play the game of baseball."
Jack Widner and Ron Gabriel are two of those life-long Grove City residents. They played in the city's first Little League season in 1950. They were instrumental in restoring Little League status to Grove City in 2012. Their next challenge - raising the funds for the special needs field.
"We needed to raise $242,000," Widner recalled. "The city took care of the infrastructure. All we had to do was build the field. We raised $605,000."
"The people of Grove City stood up and built this place," Gabriel said. "The only thing we did was guide the train to build it. I didn't understand how many special needs kids there were around this community until we opened this field. I'm overwhelmed. You kind of look back and see we have 238 kids, so that gives you an idea of how big it is. We were offered about three miles a place to put this facility. We said no. We want them here with the rest of the baseball kids."
Players have a buddy to help guide them around the bases or to make a play in the field. It's often a parent or a sibling but could be a volunteer. Kintz also does the play by play for the games. He's seen some special moments in just the first three seasons.
"Two things come to mind," Kintz reflected. "When you see kids grow. We had a player start out her first year in an assistive device, and now she walks. Then also the relationship that the buddies develop with players. We know that in this day and age that there's a lot different things kids have going on. But the fact that they can come and develop a relationship with these players and build life skills like being empathetic toward others and understanding how important it is to work toward a common goal of friendship and relationships. I think that's the thing that stands out most to me."
For the parents, Buddy Ball has provided precious memories too.
"I'm Lisa McCarty, and my son Mac is 10. He has Down Syndrome. This is his 4th year playing for the Buddy Ball league. We didn't venture out too much before Buddy Ball. I think as parents we were fearful and concerned it wouldn't go well, so Buddy Ball gives him the opportunity to play baseball the way he wants to play it but learning the rules and having peers and making friendships."
"My name is Andy Smith, and my daughter's played Buddy Ball since they started up in Grove City. She loves it. Every year as soon as she gets her shirt, she doesn't want to take it off because she's all excited for this game. Nothing holds her back. She's had 10 different medical procedures because of her hip, had to use walkers for the longest time. She just fights through. For her to get out here and hit the ball and walk the bases, it's just awesome. And then you see every one of these kids out there. Doctors probably told their parents they're not going to be doing this. They're fortunate to be in this community and have this ball field so they can go out here and prove everybody wrong."
"I'm Kyle Evans, and this is Austin. He's 4. This is his third season doing Buddy Ball. He has so much confidence. His first year when he was two, he went around the bases and hit from his wheelchair. Last year, he went around the bases in his walker. Now he's doing it in his arm crutches. It's great to see him be so successful. When I was down there behind home plate and seeing him come down the third base line, that's the first time he ever crossed the plate on his crutches, so that was a special moment. I didn't know he'd be able to keep up and go around so fast.
Players like young Austin have also learned one of the best parts of the game.
"Hey Austin, what do you love about Buddy Ball?"
"I love when we get the snack," Austin replied.
In addition to the children's league, Buddy Ball also has a 16-and-over adult division. Kintz say the goal for year five is to install lights at the special field to provide more games and activities.