For special needs children and their families, Kannapolis Intimidators games have become a lot less intimidating.
On April 2, just before the season kicked off, the Class A Chicago White Sox affiliate announced it had created Minor League Baseball's first fully dedicated sensory-friendly space. Cam's Clubhouse, overlooking right field and located in what had been executive offices, offers a calming environment for children who may be overwhelmed by the noise and crowds that are part of the ballpark experience.
Cam's Clubhouse is the brainchild of Intimidators president Brian Radle, who started working for the organization in October.
"Part of the reason I came here is because we've been an underperforming ballclub over the past couple of years," said Radle, who came to Kannapolis after spending the 2017 season as assistant general manager for the New York-Penn League's Lowell Spinners. "We're trying to make some noise and do some innovative things here."
With Cam's Clubhouse, the Intimidators have made noise by creating a ballpark space that minimizes it. It's an initiative that is near and dear to Radle, since it's inspired by and named after his son.
"I have a 4-year-old [K.J.] and a 3-year-old. And with the 3-year-old, Cam, early on we started seeing some things with him," Radle said. "He's non-verbal, had some testing and was diagnosed with autism at an early age. At the time, I was with Lowell. For me and my wife [Jeanine], it flipped our world upside down. We were trying to process, after the diagnosis, some specific things. He had a total meltdown at the mall during the holidays, and that's when it really became real."
While with the Spinners, Radle worked to ensure that Cam was comfortable at the ballpark.
"Working the hours that we do, it's personally nice to have family here as much as possible," he said. "And I envisioned my boys being two stadium rats growing up at the ballpark. But it was challenging to bring Cam. He'd often get overwhelmed from noises and sounds, but we always had a place to take him -- either the front office or up in the suites. And the grounds crew was fantastic. He'd sit on dirt mounds and play in the dirt. He was content. Over the course of last season, the more he came to the ballpark the more he was becoming comfortable. The meltdowns were decreasing. We were seeing his development right in front of our eyes."
Radle's mission to provide Cam with a safe ballpark space led to a simple realization:
"Cam always had a place to go if it got too overwhelming. We want to provide that for other people," Radle said.
Soon after joining the Inimidators, he and his staff conducted a ballpark walkthrough, trying to find ways to better use the available space.
"On the suite level, when looking at that particular space, a light bulb went off," Radle said. "So we sat down with the Autism Society of North Carolina and we got valuable feedback and insight on everything, including the paint color on the walls. They outfitted us with different toys and items that were ideal for special needs children."
Initially, Radle planned on simply calling the room "a sensory-friendly space."
"But if we stuck to that, it'd be generic," he said. "To me, storytelling is pretty important in what we do. With Cam, at first we were a little reluctant. We didn't know how to feel about putting our family life and personal life in public. But as we gave it more thought, we embraced it as parents, as something to raise awarenes and make an impact for our children and others. So let's tell a story with this, seeing his development as the story we intend to tell."
Radle praised his entire staff, particularly community marketing manager Blair Jewell, for working with him to make Cam's Clubhouse a reality. It made its debut during the Intimidators' season-opening series against the Lakewood BlueClaws, with special needs children receiving free tickets if their parents used the password "Cam's Clubhouse."
3 1/2-year old Cam Radle enjoys spending time in the clubhouse that bears his name.
"Locally, when we rolled this out, we received tremendous feedback," Radle said. "Opening Night, we had a bunch of kids up there. We've started this wall, encouraging children to go up there and sign the wall. We've already got 10 or 12 signatures or little scribbles. My wife played a role in it, providing the decor with wall art that encourages kids to 'Be brave, be you, be creative.' We hope this encourages a lot of people to adopt the same concept.
"To our knowledge, we're the first Minor League team [with a dedicated sensory-friendly space]. That was certainly not the intent, but it's been nice to see. We're kind of the first domino. Our whole vision and plan was not to send this message for one game, but knowing that it's for every game and that anytime a parent is here with a special needs child, if he or she gets overwhelmed, then they have a place."
For Radle, his professional mission to create, maintain and promote such places will always be deeply informed by personal experience.
"It's a pretty cool thing, the joy I had to see Cam in that room for the first time -- comfortable, smiling, laughing. That to me said it all," he said. "God made him special, and we celebrate his abilities and not his disabilities. When he gets older, I hope he'll appreciate it and maybe he'll become a big ambassador. I've been impressed by what people like him can accomplish. It won't hold him back."