League of Dreams gives disabled kids of all stripes a chance to play ball

During last week's Cal Ripken Major/70 World Series at the Ripken Academy in Aberdeen, a few dozen disabled children were afforded the opportunity to play ball, a chance that might not have been there were it not for the League of Dreams program.

Convening on the turf practice field on Saturday afternoon, the local children were treated to a baseball clinic, during which they were instructed on the hitting, fielding and throwing aspects of the game, and were supposed to take part in a scrimmage game, but that was canceled when a heavy rainstorm cut short the proceedings.


League of Dreams, the brainchild of former minor league ballplayer Frank Kolarek, the program's founder and president, began seven years ago with the mission of providing a baseball and softball experience for children who might not be able to compete in traditional leagues, regardless of their disability.

"We started in 2004 with just 12 kids in a Saturday morning program," Kolarek said. "That has grown to over 400 kids, and we're now doing Saturday leagues, special events and school-based programs. We've been growing fast, faster than we can keep up with sometimes, but that's a good thing for us. We're moving right along with this thing."


The program's main goals, aside from allowing the children to experience competitive baseball and softball, is to help increase physical fitness, confidence and self-awareness in disabled youths.

"Our main difference from other programs is that we're completely inclusive," Kolarek said. "Any person with special needs, whether they're physically or mentally challenged, we give them the opportunity to be on the field, with teammates, interacting with each other. They love it."

League of Dreams came to be associated with Ripken Baseball through the efforts of Rachel and Ryan Ripken, daughter and son of the Hall of Fame baseball player. While president of Students for Disability Awareness at St. Paul's School in Baltimore County, Rachel Ripken began working with League of Dreams' after-school program, in which students' volunteered their time to help disabled children learn and play baseball.

"We were looking for different projects when I was president of the Students for Disability Awareness," Rachel Ripken said. "We found League of Dreams and thought that would be a great opportunity, a great program to work with. We decided to partner with them, and after I graduated we started bringing the kids to the Ripken World Series, which has worked out really well."

After Rachel's work with the program, League of Dreams, through the help of Ryan Ripken, who was present at Saturday's activities, began to run clinics at Gilman, Ryan's high school.

"When Rachel and Ryan got involved, it was definitely a neat fit, on the baseball side," Kolarek said. "They have been outstanding. We've been involved with the Ripken Series for several years now. We were able to extend our involvement, through the Ripken family, to include activities throughout the week, and have the kids get the entire series experience, not just playing baseball. It was a continuation of Ryan and Rachel's school involvement, and it has been their project, what goes on at the Ripken Series. It's been a big league experience for our kids, which is just awesome."

In addition to the clinic and game, the League of Dreams participants take part in the Ripken World Series opening ceremonies, and are provided seats for the championship rounds.

"It's great seeing the looks on the kids' faces, seeing them involved in a sport like baseball," Rachel Ripken said. "To share something I grew up with [with] kids who wouldn't normally have the chance, is very fun, very fulfilling."


The seed for League of Dreams was planted more than 30 years ago, when Kolarek was a minor league catcher within the Oakland A's organization.

"I made it up to AAA, and got invited to major league camp twice; got pretty close to the big leagues," Kolarek said. "But, when I was playing, we would put on clinics with disabled children, and I was very touched by those experiences. After I retired as a ballplayer, I worked with the Special Olympics for 15 years. The idea with League of Dreams was to combine my baseball experiences with my professional ones, where I worked with special needs people. We tweaked everything a little bit, and here we are. For me, I'm still in baseball."