Saturday, September 19, 2009

Another Field of Dreams

I'm sharing a recent column by my friend Andre Stepankowsky, who is the city editor of the Longview (Washington) Daily News.

Baseball has been front-and-center in the community as Longview and Kelso hosted the Babe Ruth World Series, which ended Friday.

David Story Field became a field of dreams, especially to over-the-hill ballplayers like myself. How inspiring — and nostalgic — to watch these young athletes whacking and throwing balls with speed and power, running bases and fielding positions with savvy and grace, and pulling it off with decorum and youthful good nature.

They represented their communities well.But there is another field of dreams in our community. It came to life on the other side of town twice a week for much of the summer.

Unlike games played on the lush, manicured greenness of Story Field, this baseball took place on the weed-infested and parched diamonds of Seventh Avenue Park.

There were no big, cheering crowds. No concession stands. No scoreboards or PA systems.

Longview’s two Special Olympics softball teams — slow pitch and T-ball — hit the field for practice leading up to the district tournament in Olympia Aug. 1. The teams are made up of players of all ages and a wide range of abilities and disabilities, including those with Down syndrome and, like my son Nicky, autism. They’re coached by Becky Bernhardt, whose been at it for 12 years and loves it so much she says she’d continue doing it even if she had two jobs.

The action takes place in slow motion and can be comical and heart-wrenching at the same time. Batters sometimes run to third base instead of first. Ground balls often roll past fielders lost in thought — or absorbed in a hunt for toads in the turf. Nicky, adept fielder that he is, typically catches any ball hit his way. But then he often holds it aloft, like the torch on the Statue of Liberty, and fails to throw it to the appropriate base.

No, these Olympians bring more to the diamond than skill.

Where the lack speed, they substitute determination.

Where their batting eyes are dull, their will to win is sharp.

Where their throws be weak, their sense of camaraderie is strong.

Skeptical? Go watch them round the bases, limbs and sometimes
tummies flaying in all directions like July 4 sparklers.

Watch how difficult it is for some to learn, and then hear the whoops of triumph when someone finally snags a pop fly or nails a line drive.

Listen to them cheer one another one and try to encourage the less sociable among them, like Nicky. In two seasons, I’ve never heard a player badmouth another.

I’m not one of those commentators who wax eloquent about the symbolic nature of baseball. It is a game, pure and simple. Yet there seems to be something about this game, difficult to play though it be, that reaches out to people with disabilities. A father-and-son “catch” is, after all, also a tossing back and forth of ideas.

Nicky “connects” best with me when I’m hitting grounders and fly balls to him on the banks of Lake Sacajawea.

Baseball surely seems to bring out the best in Longview’s Special Olympians. They try their best, respect one another and their opponents, and play for the simple joy and honor the game brings.

That’s the core of the Olympic spirit, and why that dusty and weedy diamond along Seventh Avenue is a field of dreams, too.

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