02 June 2015
In a sense it could be any children’s baseball game. It is a sunny Saturday morning, and the sound of children laughing and adults talking mingles with the ring of metal bats. One child stands on the pitcher’s mound, ball in hand. Another plants both feet at the plate and angles the bat back over his shoulder and a third is staring at the infield dirt, studying the footprints his shoes have left.
Just another kids’ baseball game.
Except it isn’t. There are no teams (there are not enough participants), and while one child is three– another is 15. The parents are on the field with their children, and the coach wanders from child to child, a perpetual smile on his face. This is a different baseball; maybe, in some ways, a better baseball. A baseball where the joy of hitting the ball isn’t immediately lost in the urgency of a headlong race to first base. Where everyone celebrates a good throw. Where one mother, each time her son makes it to another base, picks him up and spins him in circles. This is Buddy Ball.
Four of the players have special needs.
Two of them – brothers – don’t. They volunteer to help the players run bases, bat, or throw.
The special needs players, and the typical kids, are buddies.
Landon is at bat. The little blond-haired boy shuffles his feet in the box and lays the bat on his right shoulder. He looks around to make sure everyone is watching, then wiggles his behind, and joins in the outburst of laughter from the adults, shouting his joy to the perfect blue sky with abandon. Minutes later, a swing connects and his mouth opens wide in an amazed smile and he drops the bat and jumps up and down with excitement. No one seems to mind that he forgets to run to first base. It doesn’t matter. Not at all.
Austin is dark haired and quiet; a tall, thin, ten-year-old boy with an otherworldly air. He and his father play an endless game of tag on the infield; Austin gets his hands on a ball and wants to keep it; he and his father play the game until his father catches him, laughing, and gets the ball back. They both seem to enjoy the back and forth. For a while he finds a spare ball, and stands on the pitcher’s mound with it, looking towards home plate. He is thinking deep thoughts, I can tell, but I cannot ask Austin what he thinks or feels: he is autistic, and non-verbal. His dark eyes are beautiful – especially when he smiles; a shy, sidelong grin. He likes to bunt the ball.