This is not your typical little-league scenario. Unhelpful parental sideline yelling? None of that. How about never-ending doubleheaders? No, again. Surely, there has to be an overbearing coach or player with bad sportsmanship putting down their teammates? Nope.
Welcome to Buddy Ball, a baseball league that matches special-needs players ages 5-20 with high school “buddies.” Started by the Babe Ruth program and brought to our town by the incredible Saluzzi family, Buddy Ball aims to give children who face challenges of all kinds a shot at the team experience and all that comes with it: positive self-esteem, confidence, practicing social skills, and the chance to get moving.
For my son, a big-hearted 2nd grader in special education, who knows that he’s different from typically developing kids, he has finally joined a team where he doesn’t feel like he’s dragging the whole game down. Instead of being so nervous that he disrupts the game with silly antics and rolling around in the dirt, my little guy starts every practice playing catch with older kids, who cheer for him at every toss. Looking around the field, I see players of all different abilities, all having fun with their buddies.
After that, game time. The outfield is packed with dozens of players and their buddies, with clusters of the same around every base. Everyone gets a chance at bat, with a choice of hitting the ball off a tee or a pitch. Everyone gets to make a home run, with their buddies by their sides.
Here, every parent cheers for every player and after every play. No one screams, “keep your eye on the ball!” It’s all positive. For these parents — many of whom gave up on the idea that there was any way their sons or daughters could participate in team sports — this might be their first chance to show up to a game with their heads held high. There’s a special brand of heartbreak for moms of kids who are different that comes from actually seeing the world unable to relate to your child. Many of us have felt the shame that everyone — coaches, parents and players — would enjoy the game more if our children weren’t there.
So at Buddy Ball, we can relax, not worrying that we’re going to ruin anyone’s good time. We can check in on one another about our individual struggles. We can be ourselves and not have to apologize if our child is having a bad day.
But just as critical as this experience is for us, I’m so grateful that these extraordinary buddies are practicing empathy at such a young age. I’ve gotten so used to people taking a giant step back from us, that when the opposite happens, I can’t take my eyes off of it. Seeing a talented and able teenage boy relate to my son gives me so much hope that throughout his life, there may be people out there willing to give him a chance. He needs friends.
This week, my other son’s baseball team is playing in the finals. It’s a big achievement and I’m thrilled for him, his teammates, and their wonderful families. Game day will no doubt attract the typical crowds and enthusiasm that come with small-town sporting events. But no matter how the “Big Game” goes, for me, it's nothing like the magic that’s created every week on that Buddy Ball field.