Saturday, June 7, 2003

Everyone gets to first in Abilities Baseball League

Sixty special-needs kids open T-ball season Sunday in Allen County

By Erica Blake
The (Toledo) Blade

LIMA, Ohio - With braces strapped to his legs and his back resting firmly on a metal walker, Brayden Thomas swung hard at the large softball sitting on top of a rubber T-ball stand in front of him.

"Hi-yah!" he yelled, laughing as the ball dropped to the ground a few feet away and rolled.

As with all baseball players, that was Brayden's cue to run.

So he did, one deliberate step after another, his eyes focused on first base. The ball had already been picked up, and another batter was at home plate before the 3-year-old reached the white bag, but he made it to the base, smiling the entire way.

The rules in this game are a bit different from those in other leagues. Nobody is out and wheelchairs and walkers are welcome.

In fact, everyone who wants to play the game and can't be on other teams is invited to be a part of the Allen County Abilities Baseball League. And when the first official game ball is hit Sunday evening, 60 area children with disabilities will be at one point or another on the field.

"He is so into sports, and I never thought he'd be able to play," said Brayden's mother, Jill Flores, explaining that her son has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord does not develop completely. "This has been a big thing to use his walker. He likes to get down and crawl."

Brayden is not alone. Disabled children ages 4 to 18 throughout the Lima area have had few sporting opportunities and no way to be a part of a team. Staff members at the Childrens Developmental Center in Allen County recognized that and hoped to change it.

Rachael Chapman, a recent Bluffton College graduate, was an intern at the center when the idea was being tossed around yet again. An avid sports fan, Chapman said she jumped at the chance to get a T-ball league rolling and then sat back as the community wholeheartedly responded.

Companies gave money for T-shirts and caps, parents volunteered to coach, and the local parks and recreation department made time available at one of the city's baseball diamonds.

With such overwhelming support from the community, the group was even able to organize an all-star game, complete with jerseys, to be held July 4 - the same time other leagues will hold their championships.

There is only one edict in this series of games, and it has nothing to do with winning. Instead, it's all about getting the kids out of the stands and on to the fields having fun, Chapman said.

"Most of these kids have seen their siblings be a part of a team, now they are a part of a team themselves," said Chapman, 21, who is employed at the Allen County Board of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities.

"Unless you've been excluded, you wouldn't understand what these kids are going through," she said.

Like any other 9-year-old girl, Whitney Liatos can hit a ball thrown softly to her, catch one that's thrown directly to her and get to first base while the other kids scramble around. But like other youngsters on her new team, she was never allowed to play.

Whitney, who has cerebral palsy, uses a motorized wheelchair.

"In Whitney's hometown, I wanted to get her on the T-ball team, but they wouldn't let her," said Whitney's mom, Darla Liatos, of Van Wert. "

The league's first season will run a month, with games every Sunday.

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