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Not Perfect Players, but They're in a League of Their Own

March 23, 1997|DANA PARSONS

"Nick, when you're going to throw the ball to somebody, say, 'Excuse me,' so they know it's coming."

So said the father to his son while he warmed up before the game.

No, it was not your ordinary baseball game.

Under a hazy morning sky, on a ball field next to a middle school, the Irvine Diamondbacks played their home opener Saturday. Expectations for the season are high: joy and laughter, mixed with tears, are guaranteed. For the opener, parents and relatives sat on lawn chairs, and the field was given a fresh coat of lime. The Diamondbacks took on the Laguna Niguel Angels, but only if you define "took on" to mean that nobody cared who won.

The two teams are part of the county's far-flung Challenger division of Little League. They bring to the game an array of developmental disabilities ranging from autism to cerebral palsy to Down's syndrome to severe emotional disorders. One year, they finished the season just before one of the players, who had been wheelchair-bound as the result of brain surgery, died.

Every ball hit or caught is a moment for celebration. There is no such thing as failure, even if a runner forgets to stop at first base--assuming he or she actually made it to first base without veering toward the pitcher's mound or some other uncharted destination.

The tip-off came early, when the leadoff hitter popped the ball a few feet from home plate only to have league official Darrell Burnett, who was pitching, kick it toward the infield to give the runner a better chance of making it to first base.

Parents from both teams cheered.

This isn't baseball as it was meant to be played. Or is it? Maybe the baseball these kids play and the parents cheer is so pure we don't recognize it anymore.

How can you not stifle a laugh or a tear when you see a boy playing shortstop while holding his father's hand? Or watching a batter, after hitting the ball, first hand the bat to an adult standing nearby before scampering off toward first base?

The tendency is to think the youngsters don't know what's going on. Some may not, but most do, says Burnett, a psychologist and author of books on children and the positive impact of sports participation.

"What they're doing is experiencing what other kids experience," he says. "They make statements like, 'I've got a uniform, now I'm a real person.' We want them to experience the joy of playing and to see progress. And it is joyful, in that it is a social event. You'll notice they turn toward the crowd and bow when they cheer. These kids seldom get that kind of attention. The most attention they get is if they go to the doctor or having people stare at them."

Pregame jitters? Here's these kids' idea of tension: Six-year-old Nick Dukeslaw looked down and saw mud stains all over the kneecaps of his otherwise snow-white pinstripe pants. Then he looked at his hands, also muddied. "Hey, look at this," he said, seemingly fascinated by the sight.

"Don't worry about it," his father said, playing catch with him. He tossed the ball to his son, trying to hit his outstretched glove. Nick, who is autistic but able to speak, didn't move his glove, and the ball hit him on the forearm. "Ouch," Nick said.

"He'd never thrown a ball until two weeks ago," Charles Dukeslaw said of his son. "But he told his mom the other day, 'There's no more school. Only baseball and computers.' "

Still, Nick has a ways to go. While playing catch with a teammate before the game, for example, he tossed her the ball. And then his glove.

George Peale is the player representative for the Irvine team. He also teaches Spanish literature at Cal State Fullerton and says his ballplayers bring a spirit of camaraderie to their effort. "They often live isolated lives. The concept of being part of a team is really important. It's fun at practice when we have base-running practice or races across the infield. They'll be screaming and cheering each other on. Then they'll huddle up and give some sort of goofy cheer."

Mark and Sheila Hillinger were there Saturday to root for Adam, their 9-year-old autistic son. He fielded a ball in the infield and instead of throwing it to first base, walked it over and handed the ball to the first basemen. The fans cheered.

"It's the first time he's done it [fielded a ball]," his father said. "He used to not want to throw or catch or put on the uniform. Each week he's learning a little more."

Somebody ought to pass a law requiring that every adult in Orange County attend at least one of these games.

"I think God gave these kids an extra capacity for love, to make up for some other things they didn't get," says Mike Kelley, a grizzled volunteer coach who's now 61. He likes to tell the story of John, who approached him a couple years ago and, without saying a word, began a downward stroking of Kelley's face with his index and middle finger. Eventually, Kelley understood: "Those are wrinkles," he told the boy, who has Down's syndrome.

The next season, the boy came up to Kelley and proudly called him by the new name he had thought up: "Coach Wrinkles."

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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