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Games are both fun and serious at Special Olympics


The count to Keith Pitts was one-and-two, with runners on first and second. Time to just make contact, move the runners up.

"Just try to hit it," the third base coach yelled, encouraging.

But Keith gave the next pitch a full, violent cut, fouling the ball off.

L "Keith. Just make contact. You don't have to kill the ball."

The 18-year-old from Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood looked over, nodded, then stepped back in to face the pitcher. All advice aside, he knew it was his moment. He swung wildly at the next pitch, sending the ball on a frozen-rope line to the depths of center field. A triple.

For more than 1,300 men, women and children like Keith Pitts, yesterday was very much their moment as Maryland's 23rd annual Special Olympics Summer Games shifted into full gear on the athletic fields of Towson State University.

"You couldn't ask for a better day," said Susan Baukhages, spokeswoman for the Olympics, as hundreds of mentally retarded athletes challenged each other in 85-degree sunshine. "Someone always seems to take care of us when it comes to the weather."

The games officially began Friday evening with opening ceremonies at Towson State's Minnegan Stadium. They included parade of athletes from 21 areas of Maryland, followed by the recitation of an athletic oath and the lighting of an Olympic flame.

Familiar stuff, but it's on the playing fields that the mission of the Special Olympics differs from that of its larger cousin. The mission of the games is to provide year-round training and

athletic competition to all mentally retarded people.

While competition is encouraged in the 79 events, participation is really emphasized. In addition to the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded, ribbons are awarded to those finishing fourth, or fifth or eighth.

Likewise, organizers try to schedule events using a "10-percent rule" so that athletes are competing against those whose performance is within 10 percent of their own mark: "We try to stay close to that so that it's possible that if any athlete does his best in any event, he has a chance to win," Ms. Baukhages said.

Yesterday's athletes were culled from more than 5,000 people who participated in local qualifying events held throughout the state. The men, women and children who are participating at the Towson State event are chosen not only for their ability to compete, but because they are comfortable enough with the travel and lodging involved.

Yesterday's games included track and field events, volleyball, softball, aquatics and equestrian sports, the latter of which have grown dramatically in the past several years.

While some events are designed for mentally retarded people with limited skills, others -- such as the equestrian competition and softball -- give the lie to stereotypes about retardation. "For these kids to be able to play softball is an achievement," Mr. Rigley said. "Decisions have to be made every moment that the ball is in play."

True enough. In their 27-7 victory over a Prince George's County team yesterday, Keith Pitts and his Baltimore squad managed to hit the cutoff man and throw in front of the runners with as much precision as the Orioles on an off-night.

Before the next game with a team from the lower Eastern Shore -- which had beaten them the previous day -- members of the Baltimore squad were given a rousing pep talk by an assistant coach, who said they could win if they played hard and kept their minds on the game.

The speech brought a question from a kid at the end of the bench.

"Coach?" he asked, pointing to a state Department of Natural Resources display across the field. "Do you want to go see a snake?"

"You get such a kick out of these kids," said George Epple, 53, of Cockeysville, one of about 65 CSX Corp. employees who were among more than 2,500 volunteers at the games. "You'll see a winner cross the finish line and then turn around to wait there for his buddy."

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