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Their turn at the plate

In a Billerica league, it's not just the special-needs kids who win

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / June 8, 2008

BILLERICA - The batter, fair-skinned and with red socks hiked up his shins, shuffled up to home plate.

Suddenly, he paused, shook his head, turned away. Adult arms gently guided him back, wrapped his wrists around a bat. Then came the windup from the pitcher, then the hit: a bunt.

Again, the batter's coach prompted him forward, and the lanky 10-year-old ran, jerkily. A trio of freckled guides surrounded him on all sides; when he veered off the base line, they redirected him with a light pull at the arm. Finally, as he crossed first base at Billerica's Pollard Field, the crowd in the bleachers clapped and cheered.

To most, it might seem like a simple act, a trifle of a challenge. But for David Murphy, who has Down syndrome and is nearly deaf, getting a base hit in games with the Billerica Little League Challenger Division is a triumph.

"He doesn't have a normal button like a dishwasher - his button is on high everyday," his father, Brian Murphy, with a shiny bald head and a faded tamale tattoo on one muscled forearm, said with a chuckle as he watched from the sidelines last Sunday.

"I wouldn't trade him for the world."

It's a typical scene for a sun-dappled spring afternoon: youngsters assembled on a diamond, parents rooting from the sidelines. Only for the roughly 60 players with the Challenger Division, it's not so simple - the 6- to 16-year-olds are limited by various physical and mental disabilities, ranging from autism to cerebral palsy to Down syndrome.

Some, like David, can't hear the roar of the crowd.

Others aren't able to run the bases without getting distracted.

Many more can't stand still in position for more than a few minutes.

Still, organizers started the league last season with one belief: These kids can play baseball. They just haven't been given the chance.

"The public doesn't know what they're capable of," said cofounder and coach Sandy Chapnick, a chiropractor from Billerica. "You don't know if you don't give them the opportunity."

Not surprisingly, this isn't the kind of league where competitive, goading parents erupt into fistfights.

Stark competitiveness isn't encouraged: The overall goal, besides teaching the basics of baseball, is to get youngsters to be active and social.

During at-bats, everyone gets a cheer from the bleachers, whether they run in slow zig-zags to first base or plop down in the dirt.

Ultimately, there are no winners or losers - coaches don't keep score - no one is ever tagged out, and every hit (often from a tee with a coach's assistance) is a base hit.

"A lot of them hit a home run every time, you know," coach Roy Schafer of Billerica said through a grin as he stood with his arms slung over a chest-high chain-link fence bordering the field.

Leaning nearby, his wife, Donna, added, "It's a home run, whether it's 2 feet or 20 feet."

Taking to the field every Sunday afternoon on six teams with major league names like the Red Sox, Mets, and Cardinals, every player also gets at least two "buddies."

Youth volunteers from local schools serve as protectors and guides.

"They don't always understand," said 11-year-old Patricia Rooney, one of a set of fraternal triplets who assists David. E

yes shielded by a princess-pink Red Sox hat, she explained, "You have to be as patient with them as you can."

The players, in turn, learn that essential quality.

"Two years ago, she wasn't able to just stand there," said Danielle Athanasiadis, mother of Emily, a 7-year-old with a wide smile and dark hair who has Down syndrome.

"As long as she's in the dirt, she's happy," added Athanasiadis, of Lexington, describing her daughter as outgoing, affectionate and "loving life."

Out on the field, Emily fidgeted at second base, sporting a bright pink helmet.

Nearby, at the pitcher's mound, 7-year-old Henry Goldstein - ears and head covered by a too-large baseball cap, a number 3 jersey hanging off his tiny frame - analyzed the glove covering his right hand.

Watching by the fence, his mother, Pamela, explained that baseball has helped with his confidence and social skills.

"Although he's often more interested in playing with his glove," she said.

But the rewards aren't just for the players.

Coaches note the gratification in watching proud parents; volunteers say it's helped them become more tolerant and understanding.

Plus, they learn a few things of their own.

Because David is nearly deaf, Patricia has become proficient in the signed alphabet, as well as key phrases such as "yes," "no," "later," and, most importantly to the game, "play." (Think both hands giving the "hang loose" sign while shaking back and forth.)

"It just makes me a nicer person," Patricia said.

That, in turn, has made her mother, Laure, often blubber on the sidelines.

"It makes me feel good as a parent," the proud mother said. "I did something right."

Taryn Plumb can be reached at taryn.plumb@gmail.com.

Challenger Division at a glance

The Billerica Little League Challenger Division is open to all kids in the Billerica area ages 6 to 16 with physical or mental disabilities. Younger children have been allowed in under special circumstances.

The season begins in April and runs through June, and games are structured so that all players are involved to the best of their abilities. Involvement is free to participants, thanks to donations, sponsors, and fund-raisers.

More information is available at eteamz.com/billericalittleleague/news.

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