Hall of Fame baseball player Ernie Banks coined the phrase, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame...Let’s play two!” because of his passion and love of the game.
The Baltimore Redbirds did just that on Saturday, July 20, but the game that will be etched in their memory is the first one, when they hosted 20 players from the League of Dreams baseball program.
The families in the program, directed by founder and president, Frank Kolarek, a Catonsville resident, came to Calvert Hall’s Carlos Crispino Stadium for a day of drills, followed by a game and cookout on a sweltering afternoon.
The nonprofit League of Dreams mission statement is: Provide all individuals, regardless of physical or mental capacity, the opportunity to experience the joy, challenges and personal growth from playing the great games of baseball and softball.
Kolarek, who is also a scout for the Baltimore Orioles and was heading to Harrisburg after the game to watch the Eastern League’s Harrisburg Senators play the Akron Aeros, is just as enthusiastic about working with the kids now as he was when he started the program in 2004.
“It’s baseball and our League of Dreams kids and our League of Dreams families bring out the enthusiasm in me,” Kolarek said. “They love it so much and their enthusiasm gives me enthusiasm. It’s kind of just that spirit of the game.”
The stifling heat and humidity wasn’t a deterrent to the 19 players who participated in pregame hitting, throwing and fielding drills or the 12 who played in the one-inning game.
“It’s not hot at all,” said Redbirds second baseman Pat Fitzgerald after the game. “The breeze feels that much better now, because they are out here.”
The 19 players included: Jesse Finfera, Josiah Ross, Noah Savick, Kourtney Rivers, Justin Jaquis, Evan Jaquis, Connor Smith, Patrick Smith, Elliott Brown, Ethan Brown, William Gardner, Michael Wilson, PJ Benzing, Scott Benzing, James Boehl, Charlie Bainbridge, Mason Bainbridge, Robert Sawyer and Charles Lohmeyer.
The pre-game started with the Bainbridge family, that also included parents Jeff and Julie, of Catonsville, escorting their kids beyond home plate with the American flag.
Following the national anthem, the game started with a hit by Savik, who was helped along around the bases by his dad, Dave.
Kolarek noted after the game that, “Dave gets the most exercise of any parent.”
Kolarek was especially proud to see PJ Benzing step up to the plate — by himself — and stroke an RBI single and then run straight to first base.
“I remember PJ when he was half the size (about 9 years ago) he is now and he would not go up to home plate without his parents, would not even think about taking a bat on his own and doing it,” Kolarek said. “That’s when his parents got him to do that. He would hit the ball, but where would he run? Second base. Of course, PJ led the league in doubles that year.”
All 12 players that batted in the game scored a run and Elliot Brown provided the most entertaining home plate celebration.
He spun around on the ground three times before scoring and celebrated the 10th run of the inning by doing the Gator dance, with his legs up in the air like a spider.
The highlight moments, that ended with a game-ending grand slam by Lohmeyer, made an impression on the Redbirds who are a collection of players from all over the country, including three; Fitzgerald, Lee Lipinski and Alex Pastorious who played at Calvert Hall and one each from Gilman, Brandon Casas, and St. Paul’s, Lamonte Wade Jr.
The rest of the team comes from all over the country, including Jack Fischer, who lives in Illinois and plays at Wake Forest University.
“It’s so uplifting to see these kids get out,” said Fischer, who pitched a complete-game five-hit shutout the night before in a 5-0 win over the first-place Bethesda Big Train.
The win moved the Redbirds (21-14) into second place in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, but Fischer wasn’t dwelling on that because he was so involved with the kids.
“They are so courageous to come up here and they want to get better and they want to play the game,” he said. “It’s awesome to give them the chance that we get every day, that we sometimes take for granted. Seeing them smile, it’s so much fun.”
Fischer caught during the kids game and realized the importance of it.
“It shows you what the game can be and it teaches so many life lessons,” Fischer said. “These kids are growing and we are still learning from the game too. It’s awesome to give back and we are lucky to get a chance to be out here with the team and the least we can do is give back.”
Ian Rice played in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League all-star game earlier in the week and felt like an all-star while signing an autograph after the game.
“It was humbling. It was a great experience,” Rice said. “You kind of take some of those things for granted. It’s cool to see how blessed you really are. It’s awesome and I appreciate the opportunity.”
As Fitzgerald, who also played quarterback at Calvert Hall, prepared for the Redbirds’ game later Saturday evening against the Herndon Braves, he reflected on the League of Dreams dream team.
“They will remember this for the rest of their lives and just being a part of this, and being a part of their lives growing up, is just a great experience for us and them.”
Kolarek, whose son, Adam, a Catonsville High graduate who pitches professionally for the New York Mets Double-A affiliate in Binghampton, couldn’t agree more.
“The game they have tonight will be unlike any game they have had this season,” Kolarek said. “They will appreciate it more and they will value it more, because after working with our kids, they get to really appreciate how blessed they are. It’s baseball at its purest form.”