League of Dreams: Special needs children have place where they are part of a team
Bobby "Butch" Burney | News-Telegram Sports Editor

June 3, 2006 - Craig Roberts cheers at his sons' tee-ball game, just like most dads. But, there are times when he also feels like crying.

He's not alone.

The tee-ball games his sons play in are not told by box scores or wins and losses, but by achievement.

Roberts has two sons playing in the League of Dreams in Mount Pleasant, a baseball league for special needs children which just completed its fourth season.

There are seven or eight Sulphur Springs children in the league, and their stories aren't the usual "my son made the All-Star team" talk of accomplishment.

"When you look at a special moment, you feel like crying all the time," said Roberts, who with his wife Jennifer are the parents of 6-year-old twins Matthew and Mark, both with cerebral palsy. "Do you ever want to break down and cry? Sure you do."

Kim Rogers also has twin 6-year-old sons playing in the league, Dylan and Blake Jester, who also have CP. Dylan uses a walker because of the severity of the disease, and Blake can walk without an aide.

"It's the only league where the rules are made for them," said Shaw. "It's the only thing he gets to play without the rules being changed especially for him."

The league is the brainchild of Betty Reese, a governor of Pilot Club. She heard about a team in Georgia for kids with disabilities, and thought it fit the profile of her local service club, whose main focus is to help people with brain-related disorders.

After researching other similar leagues, she tailored rules for the Mount Pleasant organization, which doesn't charge a fee for players. Basically, every child hits the ball no matter how many pitches (for older players) or swings off the tee (for younger players) it takes. 

When the ball is hit, the fielders simply throw it back in. Usually the pitcher, Betty's husband Kenneth, takes balls out of his pocket and rolls them to fielders in wheelchairs or walkers so they will be able to field a ball. Then, the baserunners advance around until they score.

Every child also has a buddy - a volunteer from the organization which sponsors that night's game - to help him or her when they need it batting, running the bases or in the field.

Every child gets a hit, gets to score a run, and gets to hear nothing but positive comments for his effort.

"The coaches do a great job of encouraging the kids," Shaw said. "Everything is 'that was a great throw' or 'that was a great hit.'

"I think that's why they have so much fun, because the whole time they're out there, it's positive reinforcement. No matter what, they hit the ball, and no matter what, they get to score, which is a big plus."

But, there's more to the league than that. Shaw has seen Dylan grow more independent. He stands against the back of his walker to hit the ball, then goes around the bases himself.

"He does a lot of things by himself. He even learned to put his baseball helmet on by himself with the strap and everything," she explained. "The first couple of games, I would help out in the dugout. But, by the second or third game, he didn't want me anywhere but in the bleachers. He would get his own water, put his helmet on by himself, switch out from his glove and baseball hat and get back on the field by himself.

"That's what a lot of kids do. They feel a little bit more independent, they're doing things on their own. He's gotten to the point that even if he couldn't do it, he would keep on trying until he could do it."

For both sets of twins, the biggest night of the year is when the Mount Pleasant varsity baseball team comes out to be buddies. There's something special about sharing the field with what they call "real baseball players."

"Having those kids who are actual ball players push him around and have a dog pile after the game is great," said Roberts. "It's an opportunity for them not to be different. 

"The players may have been apprehensive when they first got there, but it didn't take long before they were running the kids around the bases, chasing them, following them, throwing them balls and pitching to them. It takes that 'I'm different' out of the equation and just lets them be kids. I think that 'I'm different' is the adult. It takes all the adult out, and lets kids be kids."

That's what the parents and children are wanting to begin with. Blake Jester and Mark Roberts are both ambulatory - they can walk without outside means - and they can play in regular leagues, but they participate in the League of Dreams because their brothers do ... and because it's fun.

"It gives Dylan an opportunity to get out there and play baseball. While he might could have played in the league here in town, he's out there and he's not the only one with a disability," Shaw said. "Every kid has a disability, so he doesn't feel like the oddball. Several kids have walkers, some have wheelchairs, and they have races.

"He just knows he's playing baseball, and he doesn't feel like people are staring at him. He can go out there and have fun, wear a uniform and get to bat."

Ah, yes, the uniform.

Reese, the organizer of the league which now has four teams that play eight games per season, agrees that there is nothing like putting on a uniform.

"The uniform is the most important thing that a special needs child can get," she explained. "One child from Paris never dreamed he would get to play because he was in a wheelchair. But, before every game, his dad puts his cleats on him. At every at-bat, his dad picks him up and holds him where he's standing up and drags his feet in the sand around the bases. Then, when he gets to home plate, he slides him across.

"The little boy just loves it. He laughs every time."

The most special moment for the Roberts boys' team, the Cubs, was when a select team of 10- and 11-year-old Mount Pleasant boys came to be their buddies.

The select team's coach, Darrell Grubbs, said the players had been complaining about the heat, the practices, this and that.

"He basically said, 'You think you got it hard? Let's go help some people.' That was the longest night we had because the kids didn't want to stop playing," Roberts said. "They dog piled Coach Grubbs at the end of the game, his team and the special needs kids. It was like there was no difference between them out there.

"I think our kids learned a lesson, but I think it also taught the select ball team kids some things too. There were no adults out there, it was just kids."

Of course, there are some adults. In addition to Kenneth Reese pitching, Tommy Shumate helps each batter. He not only sets the tee up, he also holds the batter if they need help hitting the ball.

"When you see your son coming around the base, being pushed by a 10-year-old kid, and you see Tommy standing there waiting for him, it makes you want to cry every week," Robert said.

They also want to cheer.

Reese told the story of a young girl who uses a walker and is in her third year of playing. Her parents were trying to get her to quit being totally dependent on the walker.

"One day, she asked them what day it was, and they said it's the day to play baseball, and she threw her walker down and walked across the room," Reese related. "They think it's because she was running and playing baseball and using her muscles."

For the Roberts, seeing their sons playing baseball is quite an accomplishment. They were born almost three months premature. Mark spent 471 days in the hospital after he was born and has had 12 surgeries and undergone cardiac arrest. Matthew spent 90 days in the hospital.

Roberts credits the PPCD program, the teachers, principal and aides at the Early Childhood Learning Center for helping his sons, especially Matthew, assimilate.

Combining the excellent experience they've had at ECLC along with the League of Dreams has been a double blessing.

"It's going to be a challenge going forward," Roberts said, "and leagues like this help out because there are a lot of kids like them."

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