The first pitch in Independence will be thrown on opening day Wednesday, shortly after the 11 a.m. pregame festivities.
The absolutely guaranteed final score: many more kids who will be no less special but considered far less different than before.
A clinic involving about 40 special athletes will christen the new soft-surface “ability” baseball field in Independence, one of two being dedicated Wednesday for children unable to compete on regular ball fields.
Organizers created the fields, one of which is in Olathe, for children who need wheelchairs, walkers or motorized scooters to get around. It’s also for other children with a variety of physical or intellectual challenges. Buddies will accompany them along the base paths.
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Officials and celebrities, including baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., will help dedicate the fields with a ceremony at McCoy Park in Independence, just across U.S. 24 from the Truman Library.
The fields represent a Kansas City area consciousness regarding the needs of special athletes and the joy generated when they experience the same game thrills known by their able-bodied peers.
“I’ve seen what a confidence-builder these activities are to these kids,” said Cathleen Flournoy of Liberty. Her daughter, Catie, 7, who has cerebral palsy, has played in a separate handicapped-access field in Kansas City, North.
“So many times these kids are on the sidelines, watching their siblings or other able-bodied athletes play. But when they are the ones swinging the bat or kicking the ball, you can see how their faces glow.”
The Independence Ability Field at McCoy Park, one of only a handful of such facilities in the area, represents a state-of-the-art design. It includes a rubberized surface that is friendly to wheelchairs and walkers. It also features striped base paths, slightly elevated bases (allowing the visually impaired to better discern them), and spacious canopied dugouts without stairs or curbs, large enough to accommodate the athletes and their companions. There also are two section of bleachers for fans.
Just 15 years ago, area children with physical or intellectual disabilities had few ways to participate in sports. The Independence and Olathe fields coming at the same time represent a renewed momentum initiated by special athletes, their families and a long list of donors and volunteers.
Ripken plans to attend because his foundation, named after his dad, donated to both fields. Also expected Wednesday are current and former Kansas City Royals. The team donated money generated during the 2012 All-Star game.
But the real stars will be the athletes and the companions who will help them, Flournoy said. The experience teaches the able-bodied children that the special athletes are more like them than different.
“It’s interesting to watch as people realize that these kids just want to play just like everyone else,” she said.
Much of the local interest began with Ricky Hernandez of Merriam, who was born with cerebral palsy.
As a young child, he grew enamored with the 1998 home run battle between sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. When representatives of the Dream Factory learned of Ricky, they asked if there was anything he wanted. He told them: A baseball field.
By 2002, that’s what the Hernandez family had: a backyard baseball diamond with artificial surface base paths friendly to Ricky’s wheelchair.
At about that same time, Jerry Rockhold, an Olathe business owner, watched an episode of HBO Real Sports detailing the efforts of parents of disabled children in Conyers, Ga., to build a baseball field their children could more easily navigate.
The parents called their games the Miracle League.
“It felt like an epiphany,” said Rockhold, who felt compelled to act even though his two sons were able-bodied.
He called the Georgia parents, who gave him permission to use the Miracle League name.
Then in 2002, he read a Star story about Ricky and his backyard baseball field. Rockhold visited Ricky’s parents, who agreed to host local Miracle League games. For the past 12 years, they have been hosts for spring and fall league play in their back yard. Usually Rockhold would pitch, with one of his two sons, Michael or Matthew, catching.
“We thought we would need a lot of volunteers to help with all the kids,” said Ricardo Hernandez, Ricky’s father. “But with all the parents and friends, that kind of took care of itself.”
Rockhold, meanwhile, also began assembling a loose coalition of donors. He traveled with a DVD of the HBO Real Sports segment. The DVD grew so worn that sometimes the audio wouldn’t work.
“But by then I could narrate it,” Rockhold said.
Last July, the Miracle League broke ground for a home baseball field at the College Boulevard Activity Center in Olathe. Representatives of several Olathe businesses and Royals Charities attended.
The Royals’ involvement began in 2007 when players Mark Teahen and others helped raise money for building the Challenger Sports Complex in Kansas City, North.
Later, an Independence parks department employee learned of the Ripken Foundation’s National Youth Development Park Initiative, which sought to develop fields across the country to help provide athletic experiences for “underserved” young people. The foundation since has donated to both the Olathe and Independence fields, Rockhold said.
To see cities invest in such facilities has been gratifying, said Deborah Wiebrecht, executive director of the Variety Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City, which serves children with mobility issues.
“I work with these families every single day and they all say, ‘There is nothing for my child,’” Wiebrecht said. “So it has been frustrating to me not to have cities understand that they should open up facilities for all children.”
Variety committed last November to raising money for the Independence and Olathe fields. A separate dedication ceremony for the Olathe field has been scheduled for September.
“Now these children will play in an actual baseball field, with bleachers,” Wiebrecht said. “They will feel like everybody else who plays baseball, and not different.
“These kids don’t need special treatment, they just need special equipment.”
Also expected to attend Wednesday’s ceremonies: Ricky Hernandez, today a new Shawnee Mission North High School graduate who is preparing to enter the University of Kansas this fall.
He wouldn’t miss Wednesday’s dedication, he said, even though his own Miracle League playing days are over.
“I feel just as much enjoyment now watching as playing,” he said. “When you play, you don’t get to sit back and soak it all in and see all the other kids smiling.”
The two new “ability” baseball fields are at McCoy Park, U.S. 24 and North Delaware Avenue in Independence, and at the College Boulevard Activity Center, 11031 S. Valley Road in Olathe.