Volume 19 Issue 50 | April 27 - May 3, 2007

Autistic kids play ball Downtown

By Brooke Edwards

Emma Yamamura had never played baseball before she came to the Battery Park City field Saturday morning. But from the moment the petite 7-year-old slipped into her cherry-red jersey, her smile shamed even that day’s spring sun.

Emma didn’t step up to the plate alone. Behind her was her father, who helped her hold the bat. Together they connected with the lobbed pitches, and together, they walked hand in hand to first base.

In Emma’s game, there were no strikes or outs or even innings. No one kept score, and the pitcher did most of the fielding.

But what the game lacked in rules and structure, it more than made up for in hugs and smiles and pride.

Saturday marked the first game for Downtown Little League’s newest addition to its roster: Challenger Baseball. It is a program dedicated entirely to children with autism, a disorder characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming social relationships.

And, sadly, the program is a rare privilege nationwide.

“It’s very uncommon,” said Mark Costello, president of the Downtown Little League. “There are four other programs like it in all of New York City. And obviously, the potential population is huge.”

The number of diagnosed cases of autism has soared in the last few years, though no one is quite certain as to why. One in every 150 children is affected by the disorder, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics released in February.

Costello said the high cost of the additional insurance required prevents many leagues from being able to offer teams for children with special needs. “Being a part of the International Little League has made it affordable,” he said.

Emma was the lone girl among a dozen boys who showed up for the inaugural event — autism is three times more likely to affect males than females.

“Whenever we went to the park and played, she would see the other kids playing baseball and she couldn’t join in,” Emma’s mother, Chiaiki Yamamura, said, with a smile that almost rivaled her daughter’s. “This is a great opportunity for her.”

On the pitcher’s mound was Paul Colliton, who is managing Challenger Baseball.

Colliton played Little League as a child and is a Yankees season ticket holder. His 11-year-old son, Billy, is autistic.

“We could see the ballfields from the window of our apartment,” said Billy’s mother, Jackie. She said it was very sad for her to think that Billy would never get to play the game her husband loves so much.

“We are just so happy that the community has come together to make this happen,” Jackie Colliton said, tearing up as she looked around at the smiling faces. “I think it gives them a lot of confidence.”

Coach Colliton said he came that morning hoping to organize some semblance of an actual game, but realized quickly that wasn’t going to happen. Instead he pitched underhanded to whoever came to bat – stopping to tie the occasional shoe – and often waited while they scored their “homerun.”

“I think this’ll be it,” Colliton said, with just a hint of disappointment. But as he stood on the mound to pitch, with one arm around Billy, there was nothing but joy on his face.

Seven-year-old Jacob Velez had the base running down. In fact, he rarely stopped rounding the diamond during the entire two-hour game, whether he had been up to bat or not.

“He does like to run,” his dad, Victor Velez, said with a laugh. “He’s very active.”

Velez said, “Normally we just bring him to the park and let him run.” But when he heard about Challenger Baseball through Costello, he decided to bring Jacob down.

Velez said that Jacob is on the “better side” of the autism spectrum. That spectrum can range from those who are severely affected and completely dependent on others to function, to those who are of above-average intelligence and independent, yet lacking in social skills.
“He’s a good boy,” Velez said with pride. “He listens. He just doesn’t understand the rules of baseball.”

For Velez, it was just important to get Jacob outside, socializing and trying something new.

“And,” Velez said, as he straightened the bright blue cap on Jacob’s head, “he looks cute in his uniform.”

Along with the family members and volunteer coaches on hand for the first big game, there were a half-dozen enthusiastic young girls running around the field, coaching the players and cheering them on.

Most of the players, including Emma, seemed to revel in the cheers. But for some the excitement was a bit much, and they stuck their fingers in their ears even as they ran the bases.

As one player swung and missed (the pitch was a bit high, anyway), one girl could be heard telling him, “It’s okay. You’ll do better next time.”

The voice belonged to Delia Costello, the 9-year-old daughter of the league president. Delia is a baseball player herself, but has been benched for the season after she broke her arm playing with her dog.

“Since I couldn’t play,” Delia said, “I figured I might as well help others play.”

Delia spent the entire game encouraging the batters, running the bases alongside the players and keeping a concerned eye on those waiting their turn.

When one player wandered near a batter ready to swing, Delia gently took his arm in her casted one and guided him to the sidelines, saying in a sing-song voice, “Come on, we can’t be near where the batter is.”

“She does have a compassionate heart,” Costello said of his helpful daughter. “And that’s a big part of this program, to let the mainstream kids see what a big deal this is for these kids.” He said he hopes it will help them take things less for granted, and help them appreciate being able to do something as simple as playing a game of baseball.

On the next field over, in uniforms identical to the Challenger players, the mainstream kids were focused on their more-traditional version of the game. They followed the rules and drew a crowd of spectators.

But there were more cheers — and more smiles — on Emma’s field.

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