Ask Fort Myers Miracle president Steve Gliner about what transpired at Hammond Stadium on the morning of April 28 and you'll get a ready answer: "It's the best event we do all year -- hands down, no question."
He's speaking about the team's annual "Special Needs Baseball Camp," open to children age 18 and younger who are afflicted by any kind of disability (be it physical, behavioral or both). The entire Miracle team and coaching staff join the campers on the field, spreading the joy of baseball via group activities and plenty of one-on-one instruction.
The event, which provides a template that will hopefully be adopted by other clubs throughout Minor League Baseball, is put together in conjunction with Dave Clark and his eponymously-named foundation. Clark's life is the stuff of legend: Stricken with polio at a young age, he taught himself to play baseball while on crutches and went on to an improbable globe-spanning professional career (throwing a knuckleball on the mound and also logging time as a first baseman). Now 59, he spends much of his time organizing and promoting "Disability Dream Day" (D3) events through his foundation.
Gliner first got in touch with Clark in 2005, at the behest of Mike Veeck, a member of the Miracle's ownership group. At their first meeting, Clark asked Gliner if the Miracle had ever hosted a special needs camp.
"Whoa, no, we wouldn't know where to start," Gliner replied.
The trepidation was understandable ("We had no understanding of what the parameters would be," elaborated Gliner) and Clark had a ready response: "Well, would you be interested if I taught you the way to do it?"
And thus, the Special Needs Baseball Camp was born. Two key elements have been in place since the event's 2006 iteration, which Gliner says has gone a long way toward ensuring its success. The first is that the campers' parents and caregivers are allowed on the field.
"It gives the families an opportunity to interact with the players, and made it less overwhelming for us and the players," said Gliner. "Everyone is at ease within five minutes and is out there for the same reason: to enjoy baseball, interact with the players and have a fun time. It's really something, to just stand there and watch and take it all in.
"Usually the first five or 10 minutes, both sides, the kids and the players, are feeling each other out a little bit," said Miracle manager Jake Mauer. "And then after 15 minutes, it's like they've known each other their whole lives. The apprehension is completely gone."
The full participation of the Miracle team is the other crucial element to the event's success and in recruiting his entire squad to take part, Mauer is following a Fort Myers tradition first established by 2006 skipper Kevin Boles.
"[In 2006] I sat down with Boles and asked if he could get 10 guys to participate," recalled Gliner. "He stopped me mid-sentence and said, 'For this event, the entire team will be there -- don't you worry.' And that was great -- it set the precedent."
Friends for life
To get an example of just how impactful the Special Needs Baseball Camp can be, one needn't look any further than 11-year-old Billy Adams of Cape Coral, Fla. Adams, who is deaf and has Down's Syndrome, has attended the camp in all but one year of its existence.
"It's just so special to see the kids running around with the players. The players help them bat, and teach them to throw and are always encouraging them to at least try," said Rose Adams, Billy's mother. "The Miracle and the [parent] Twins organization are phenomenal as far as I'm concerned."
Rose, an advocate for the disabled, believes that the camp's can-do spirit serves as a crucial antidote to a defeatist attitude that she often encounters in her work.
"The first thing I often hear [when speaking to parents of disabled children] is what they can't do," she said, the frustration evident in her voice. "But let's not focus on that! Don't limit these children, because they can do anything. Giving them the opportunity to do something that they wouldn't normally do can make for a great experience."
Billy's experience at the Special Needs Baseball Camp serves as ample proof of this.
"Billy now plays baseball three or four times a week. It's helped with his motor skills, and his eye-hand coordination," said Rose. "And it's a sport he probably wouldn't have played otherwise, or one we would have even thought that he could do."
And then there are the social benefits. This year Billy had a great experience at the camp with a rehabbing Wilkin Ramirez (currently with Double-A New Britain), but Rose jokes that Ramirez is "going to have to fight Ben for custody."
"Ben" is outfielder Ben Revere, who participated in the Special Needs Camp in 2007.
"Billy didn't want to participate that year, I don't know why. He just sat on the ground and refused to do anything," said Rose. "And one of the players said, 'Go get Ben, I'm sure he'll play with Ben.' And sure enough, as soon as Ben came out, Billy just took to him. They played together all day, just the two of them, and it's turned into a very gratifying friendship for both of them."
Revere has kept in touch with Billy, and Rose says that the bond the two have formed speaks to Revere's "warm and caring personality."
"Billy doesn't realize that Ben's a professional baseball player, he doesn't get that concept," said Rose. "He just knows that Ben's No. 11 and that they're friends."
Many people are needed to make the Special Needs Baseball Game a reality, but the driving force behind the event is Clark. In the preface to the Clark biography Diamond in the Rough, Veeck writes that "Dave Clark's story is an astonishing blend of fact and fact. It only reads like fiction, but one could never make up the battles he has waged, the obstacles he has overcome, the victories that were finally his."
Doug Cornfield, co-founder of the Dave Clark Foundation, calls Clark "the greatest mostly unknown sports story of our time," and it's hard to argue. He has lived seemingly all aspects of the baseball life: player, scout, coach, manager, and even team owner (he ran the storied Indianapolis Clowns franchise through 1988, at which point they were the last unbroken link to the Negro Leagues).
Clark did it all while on crutches, yet never saw himself as disabled.
"I just saw myself as doing something that I loved to do and, fortunately, was good enough at it to make a living," he said, speaking from the concourse during April 28's Miracle game.
But his attitude changed after developing post-polio, a condition that he describes as "rapid acceleration of atrophying in the muscles. "
"The post-polio opened my eyes to disabilities," he said. "I never had thought before about having to use a wheelchair or dealing with slippery floors or ice. On my crutches I had enough upper body strength to deal with it, and if I went down, I wasn't going to get hurt anyway. It's a whole different ballgame now."
Clark already had experience running so-called "normal" baseball camps, and in 1992 he used his expertise to set up the first camp for those with disabilities. He and his family moved to Cape Coral, Fla., in 2003, and soon thereafter, he and Gliner began collaborating on what has since become a cherished Fort Myers tradition.
"Dave was the inspiration for this. He's the one that said 'Hey, ride my coattails and we'll do it together,'" said Gliner. "He has such a great story to tell, and knows how to inspire people. I'm proud to call him a friend."