On Tuesday, the sky a clear blue, the temperature in the 70s with just the right bit of breeze, the beautiful day served as the backdrop for a heartwarming event at St. Paul's School for Girls in Lutherville.
For the ninth year in a row, the private school hosted League of Dreams Day during which St. Paul's girls play a baseball game with students from Ridge Ruxton School, a Baltimore County public school in Towson for special needs young people, ages 3 to 21.
"Our school is committed to being a partner with the Baltimore disabled community," said LuAnn Blackman, St. Paul's 11th-grade dean, a math teacher and moderator of the St. Paul's Club for Students for Disability Awareness, which organized the event.
The opening ceremonies started at 10 a.m. The teams lined up facing each other, St. Paul's players in white polo shirts and light green skorts on one side, the Ridge Ruxton players, some in wheelchairs, on the other. The bats and balls, which were made of plastic and much lighter than regulation bats and balls, lay ready for the players.
A recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played; an American flag, displayed. Coaches, teachers and helpers milled around the field. The bases were laid out.
Then came the call, "Play ball!" and the action was on.
The honor of throwing out the first pitch went to Ridge Ruxton student Clay Brogdan, 21, who graduates this spring.
"I watch it on TV," said Brogdan, whose favorite team is the Baltimore Orioles. "I also like soccer."
Frank Kolarek is president of League of Dreams, a nonprofit headquartered in Baltimore County. He founded the league in 2004 with the express purpose of giving everyone in the disabled community the opportunity to play baseball.
It's a sport he loves. A former player for the minor league Oakland Athletics team, Kolarek is the Baltimore Orioles' scout for the mid-Atlantic region. As a sideline, he is the assistant coach for the baseball team of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, a Catholic school in Olney, Md.
"We work with children and adults with physical and/or mental challenges. Baseball is our vehicle to do that," said Kolarek, a Catonsville resident who has extensive experience with the disabled population. He worked in the national office of Special Olympics for 10 years, followed by five years as head of the Baltimore City Special Olympics office.
Kolarek oversees 400 volunteers annually for various league events. They range from Saturday programs in partnership with local recreation and parks departments to over 100 families attending opening day ceremonies at Ripken Stadium, in collaboration with Cal Ripken Jr. stadium officials. The league also sponsors an adult softball tournament among adult group homes in Baltimore City.
"We play an adaptive baseball game. Anyone can play, a child in a wheelchair, a child with autism," Kolarek said of the oversized plastic bats and balls, the shortened baseball diamond. "There's the thrill of hitting the ball, fielding the ball, running the bases within their ability level."
Olivia Wickwire, a senior at St. Paul's School, is co-president of the Club for Students for Disability Awareness. With 25 members in grades ninth through 12th grades, the club meets weekly for discussions and activities. But the League of Dreams Day is by far the biggest — and most exciting — event it hosts.
"It's one of my favorite days of the school year. Everyone's smiling," said Wickwire, a Falls Road resident. "This is the event the girls join the club for because they get to do something immediate and hands on."
Indeed, as the game progressed, St. Paul's students escorted Ridge Ruxton students around the bases. They clapped and cheered. So did a group of younger St. Paul's students whom the club had invited to attend and who sat in bleachers to the side of the field. The St. Paul's photo club took pictures to post on the school website.
And then, there was Kolarek, directing the action, making sure everyone was having a good time (they were).
"It gives volunteers a chance to interact and be part of the players' success," Kolarek said. "As for the players, we make them feel like big leaguers for the day."