On a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, the grounds of Marian Bergeson Elementary School are quiet and empty — almost. Little by little, families emerge across the campus. Some carry umbrellas or tents, some have foldable sports chairs and all are ready for a morning of baseball.
This morning, the Angels in red face off against the Mariners in green. As the first player comes up to bat, a volunteer announces his name into a portable microphone.
“We have No. 12, Michael!”
All the parents in the stands clap and cheer as Michael approaches home plate.
“Do you want to use the tee?” his coach asks, bending his 6-foot-2-inch frame to meet the little boy in the eye.
Michael shakes his head and raises the bat. The coach corrects his batter’s stance, adjusting the position of his feet on the ground and his hands on the bat.
Another coach stands on the pitcher’s mound.
“Ready?” he asks. Michael nods, staring intently at the ball. A hush falls over the crowd as the coach tosses an easy, underhand pitch. Michael swings just a second too late, and the crowd lets out an audible groan of sympathy.
“That’s alright. C’mon buddy, you can do it!” a man calls from the stand.
Michael swings again on the second pitch. This time, the ball glances off his bat, bouncing weakly on the grass and coming to a rest a few feet away.
“Nice hit, Michael!”
“Good job, kiddo!”
“Run, Michael! First base, buddy, you know where that is!”
The cheers reverberate through the stands as Michael hustles to first base.
This is Spirit League, where special needs children can play team sports at their own pace, where the environment is one of encouragement, where parents can get involved.
During one play, the ball rolls down the field. One player runs to scoop it up in his glove but the ball rolls between his legs. Another makes a run for it and misses as well. Then, another little boy picks it up and throws it to first base. His toss is clumsy, though, and it sails several feet away from its mark.
Instead of groans of disappointment, the spectators and teammates cheer.
“Nice try, guys!” they call.
The kids play by baseball rules, with a few minor differences. Each player has a chance at three (underhand) pitches. If they haven’t hit the ball yet, they can hit from a tee. Coaches encourage their players to take a swing at the pitches, though, in order to accustom them to tracking the moving ball with their eyes.
Melissa Corey, one of Spirit League’s board members, estimates that about 80 percent of the players fall within the autism spectrum. Some of the players may have other mental or physical disabilities, such as Down’s Syndrome or cerebral palsy.
The league, ultimately, is for “children who are physically active (ambulatory), and have the emotional ability to participate — but have difficulty keeping up with their peers.” The patient guidance of volunteer coaches and helpers gives every player the opportunity to develop basic skills and knowledge in the three sports that Spirit League offers during the fall, winter and spring seasons: soccer, basketball and baseball, respectively.
Kelly McKinnon, a behavior analyst who specializes in working with adults and children with various developmental disabilities, explains that the children who participate in Spirit League may not have the mental or physical capacity to play at “normal speed.” This means that, while an average child already has a general grasp of how to catch a ball and throw it, a child with developmental disabilities may have trouble processing what is expected of him. In Spirit League, the coaches work closely with each child to break down the game into steps.
“First, you step like this,” one of the coaches says, demonstrating to his gaggle of players. They mimic his movements, and he gently corrects each player. When they have mastered the “step,” he moves on.
“Then you throw. Like this.” He demonstrates again, and the players let loose, sending baseballs flying in every direction. Before he can say another word, they scamper off to fetch their balls.
“Okay, guys, that was good. Remember, you step, then you throw.”
This step-by-step instruction and repetition allows each player to learn at an appropriate and comfortable pace for him or her. As a result, the process of learning becomes something enjoyable rather than frustrating or discouraging. Though the players are separated into different divisions based on age, the actual placement of a child in a division is on a case-by-case basis; children who fall into one category can easily be moved into a different division as necessary. The coaches and helpers cater to each player’s individual needs.
“You’ve seen one autistic kid, you’ve seen one autistic kid, they’re all so different,” Corey said, laughing.
Indeed, one team can have a player capable of hitting the ball into the outfield and another player who needs to be personally guided to each base. Despite this, teammates develop friendships and camaraderie with each other, playing and working together toward a common goal.
In addition to the benefits the children receive from Spirit League, the parents agree that they benefit as well.
“One of the biggest things is that Spirit League gets the fathers involved … [A father might think] his kid will never play on a sports team and all that … Most of these fathers never even thought they’d ever see their children playing a sport — but here they are. Playing baseball.”
In fact, all of the coaches are volunteers, fathers — and some mothers — excited to play a sport with their child.
“What father doesn’t want to coach his son’s Little League games?” Corey laughs.
“I love it,” Coach Jason says. “It’s great because these kids appreciate so much more when they get something right … For every hit,” he raises his arms like he’s cheering. “It’s like, ‘yeah! Good job!’”
At the end of the game, the two teams form a circle for one last cheer:
“Two, four, six, eight. Who do we appreciate? Spirit League, Spirit League, yay!”
Then the parents stream onto the field and stand in two lines, forming a “spirit bridge” with their arms. The players run through the bridge, large grins on their little faces.