A group of children with emotional and physical disabilities get to play baseball at Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital, courtesy of League of Dreams. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun video)
The bases were loaded when 10-year-old Maia Dang dug in at the plate. She stared with purpose at the pitcher — who just happened to be an Orioles Hall-of-Famer — and a moment later, let loose with a mighty swing. The ball sailed toward left field. The crowd cheered, the bases cleared and Maia beamed.
There was a lot of that sort of thing going on Saturday at the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital as a group of about a dozen children with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities got a taste of diamond glory. It didn’t matter that the balls were often balloon-sized and filled with air, that the bats were plastic, that the game was being played on a fenced-in outdoor basketball court. It didn’t matter that the batters were often more intent on jumping up in celebration of a hit than actually running the bases.
What mattered was that they were swinging the bats, that a whole crowd was cheering them on, that they had smiles on their faces and joy in their steps.
“She’s just having a heyday here today,” said Maia’s mother, Monica Dang, who lives in Columbia. “The way they do this is so amazing. She loves the one-on-one attention from the other kids and the adults. I’m just so happy for her.”
The event was organized by League of Dreams, a Catonsville-based group that adapts the game to make it accessible to those who might otherwise not be able to play.
“We want to utilize baseball as a platform to reach and teach children of all different abilities,” said Frank Kolarek, a former minor-league catcher and big-league scout who started League of Dreams in 2004. “It’s a sport we’ve enjoyed our whole life, and basically we wanted to share it with the children that, quite frankly, don’t have that opportunity.”
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In the 15 years since he started the group, Kolarek said, they’ve worked with some 4,200 kids.
Retired Orioles shortstop and current broadcaster Mike Bordick, who happily gave up that grand slam to Maia, said he hopes the experience makes as much of an impression on the volunteers who help out as on the kids doing the playing.
“The hope,” said Bordick, board chair of League of Dreams, “is that they can take it off these playing fields and into their communities, so that when they see kids with special needs, they’ll understand that they want to have a good time, that they want to smile, that they want to be part of everything as well.”
Maia, who has Down syndrome, clearly relished her times at the plate, holding the bat high and repeatedly making contact. Seven-year-old Ian Kim, who is on the autistm spectrum, raised his arms in the air after almost every hit, jumping with joy, smiling a smile that his face could barely contain; off to the side, his mom, Hyeji Kim, was recording it all on her cellphone. “I’m so happy,” she said, as Ian connected with yet another pitch and raised the bat above his head in triumph.
Likewise, 8-year-old Kennedee Pelzer, whose arms and legs were left stunted after a bacterial infection when she was 7 months old, couldn’t get enough of the game, repeatedly whacking the ball and eagerly heading for first base.
“She couldn’t wait to be here today,” said her mom, Kimberlee Pelzer, of Gwynn Oak. “Oh my gosh, it means everything to be a normal kid. To be able to see her play baseball today is amazing, so amazing.”