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Minors seeking to be leaders on disability inclusion

#MiLBUnlimited push was to bust open 2020, inspires hope for '21
Kellen O'Connell had a ball playing in the Great Lakes Loons' Miracle League game on Inclusion Day last year. (Great Lakes Loons)
July 22, 2020

The cancellation of the 2020 Minor League season delayed a lot of things: Wander Franco stepping in for his first Double-A at-bat; MacKenzie Gore's followup to a breakout campaign; a lifelong fan's first game with her grandchildren; a puppy's first bark in the park. But #MiLBUnlimited, an industry-wide initiative designed

The cancellation of the 2020 Minor League season delayed a lot of things: Wander Franco stepping in for his first Double-A at-bat; MacKenzie Gore's followup to a breakout campaign; a lifelong fan's first game with her grandchildren; a puppy's first bark in the park.

But #MiLBUnlimited, an industry-wide initiative designed to increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in Minor League Baseball in a way both fundamental and profound, is underway even as its effects won't be fully visible this year. Sunday marks a big day for the initiative -- although not as big as it would have been with fans pouring into Minors parks.

“July 26 is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and we wanted to use that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, baseball is for everyone regardless of ability or skills. ... Everyone should have the opportunity to fall in love with baseball,'" said Meg O'Connell, the founder of Global Disability Inclusion, one of two firms that consulted with Minor League Baseball to devise #MiLBUnlimited. “Of course, since Minor League Baseball’s season has been canceled, we thought this would be a good time to talk about plans for the 2021 season."

O'Connell, Minor League Baseball and disability inclusion expert James Emmett (whose James Emmett & Company is the other firm behind #MiLBUnlimited) are building the initiative around what they call the Four E's: engagement, education, employment and experience. Using that framework, Minor League Baseball has committed to help teams build strong relationships with local organizations that support people with disabilities, conduct staff sensitivity and inclusion training, create a culture of hiring people with disabilities into varied roles -- from seasonal gameday staff to full-time front office positions -- and give fans with disabilities support in partaking in the unique Minor League Baseball experience.

"The greatest thing about what we’re doing with Minor League Baseball is that it’s a holistic approach," Emmett said. "When you look at the best, proactive parts of what’s been done with major sports teams, you see some stadiums have a sensory room -- great! Or they do a disability night -- great! But nobody has holistically looked at how you employ and how you engage with the disability community as fans in major sports.”

The need for such an approach and Minor League teams' interest in meeting that need are apparent within the industry. In recent years, Minor League Baseball has made pointed efforts to increase engagement with Hispanic fans through Copa de la Diversión and with LGBTQ+ fans with Pride initiatives. In the same spirit of inclusion and spreading the message that Minor League Baseball is for everybody, #MiLBUnlimited aims to unambiguously welcome members of the disability community. In a survey of Minor League clubs, more than 83 percent voiced an interest in increasing disability inclusion efforts and said they want the resources Minor League Baseball aims to provide through #MiLBUnlimited.

O'Connell and Emmett have been Winter Meetings attendees for the past few years, both seeing the Minors as the best space in sports to make a significant impact with disability inclusion.

“Minor League Baseball does a lot in the diversity and inclusion space ... and myself and [Emmett] do a lot of work with foundations to fund disability-related projects around the country," O'Connell said. "There’s a foundation called the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. Their work is for all people with disabilities, but they focus primarily on intellectual and developmental disabilities. They were looking for a project that would speak for greater inclusion of that population as well as all people with disabilities.

"When I saw that there was this opportunity with this trust, I thought it was really interesting to try to join it to entertainment and sports and Minor League Baseball especially, because it’s such a great way to bring community together.”

O'Connell and Emmett secured funding from the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust on the condition they could find a matching commitment -- which they got from Minor League Baseball Charities.

“Minor League Baseball is about nothing if not about community involvement and participation and connection," O'Connell said. "I started talking with [assistant director of community engagement Courtney Nehls] a year-and-a-half ago or a little longer, and she said, ‘We have a real opportunity here because we haven’t been able to go deep into disability inclusion just because we haven’t had the knowledge.’”

Ten teams (Triple-A Albuquerque, Triple-A El Paso, Triple-A Fresno, Double-A Altoona, Double-A Jacksonville, Double-A Reading, Class A Advanced San Jose, Class A Lakewood, Class A Great Lakes and Class A Short Season Eugene) were set to pilot the initiative this year.

“That’s why we’re so disappointed" by the cancellation of the season, Emmett said. "We’re getting on the ground to help teams and we were ready to do that for 2020. But we’re excited for 2021 and maybe we’ll get even more buy-in.”

In that hope, the forces behind #MiLBUnlimited are focused on creating a remote resource center.

"We’re building something we’re calling the Disability Inclusion Center of Excellence," O'Connell said. "We want to build a resource center that has ways to bring other teams on board – whether that’s with tools, resources, training materials that help Minor League Baseball scale this beyond the first 10 teams."

One of the factors that makes the Minors ripe for this kind of initiative, of course, is that some teams already are pioneers in the realm of disability inclusion.

Miracles, dreams and beyond

If a team's typical route to a commitment to disability inclusiveness begins with a theme night, grows into a concentrated effort to recruit candidates with disabilities for jobs and evolves into a situation in which fans with disabilities view their local ballparks as both welcoming entertainment venues and resource centers, the Great Lakes Loons' route has been almost the opposite.

The Midwest League affiliate of the Dodgers, located in central Michigan, plays its games in a facility that was optimized for accessibility from the start. Dow Diamond, which opened in 2007, was designed with extensive input from the Mid-Michigan Disability Network and includes an abundance of accessible parking spots, wheelchair and companion seating, elevators, accessible bathroom stalls, arm-less stadium seating, visual fire alarms and alert systems, Braille and raised-lettered signage and other features.

"We are very pleased that accessibility and disability inclusion have been at the forefront of Loons baseball since its inception," Mid-Michigan Disability Network executive director Kelly PeLong -- who's married to Loons director of ticketing operations Sam PeLong -- wrote in an email. "Our agency was pulled in to consult before groundbreaking and we will continue partnering as long as needed.”

Addi Tammen (rounding third), daughter of Loons GM Brad Tammen, also partakes in an onsite cooking program for people with disabilities.Robert Spears Photography

Cameron Bloch, Great Lakes' promotions manager, relishes that partnership. In his view, it and partnerships with local non-profit organizations like the Arc of Midland (which provides an array of services and opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities) have made it easy for the Loons to become industry leaders. In addition to the advanced accessibility of their ballpark, they offer sensory kits designed to soothe children on the autism spectrum or others for whom the stadium atmosphere can prove overwhelming. The Loons' sensory kits include an information card detailing resources available in the community.

“We didn’t want to make [our sensory kits] ourselves, so we reached out to the Disability Network and said, ‘Hey, we could use some help identifying different things that work because we want a resource for people all across the spectrum,’" Bloch said. "The idea would be, every time somebody comes to a game, you have a quick conversation: ‘Hey, have you ever had a sensory kit? Is that something you might want?’ And you get a note card telling you all about the Arc of Midland and services like this. 'If you need assistance, here’s where to contact.'”

The team also has worked with the aforementioned partners and an employment-focused organization called the Arnold Center to recruit staff.

“When I got to the Loons, I could tell it was such a great culture of inclusion, not just for people with disabilities, but in regards to any differences we might find across human beings," said Stacy Sprunger, the team's human resource manager since last year. "That made it easy for me to say ... 'Are we making sure everybody has the chance to apply?'”

Sprunger, who previously worked for Dow Chemical and has long been dedicated to inclusivity, met with Bill Emmett of James Emmett & Company in February to discuss practices the team already had in place. During those discussions, Sprunger reviewed what kind of opportunities the Loons offer and what the team can do to give any potential employee the appropriate tools to meet the demands of the job.

"I wouldn’t want to say, 'This job is for people with disabilities,’" she explained. "I try to flip it and make it positive -- 'What are this person’s abilities and what can they do?'

"When you think about it, disability is something where anybody can become part of that group at any time. When you work with a person and talk to people, you'll see what they can do. Sometimes it’s really simple. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I need one tool and then I can do my job.’ ‘All right, here you go!’ and then you watch them take off.”

The Loons already were planning an Inclusion Day for 2019 when Bloch suggested it could include a Miracle League game -- a version of baseball open to anyone, regardless of level of ability or limitations, which he'd fallen in love with while working for the Class A Short Season Everett AquaSox in 2016.

"A Miracle League game – everybody gets to hit, everybody has a buddy. If you can’t swing a bat, somebody will swing for you," Bloch explained. "Within five minutes, it goes from ‘What’s happening?’ to ‘Oh, I get it’ and everybody is having a great time. Barriers break down. Soon players are throwing down the gloves and we’re running with them. It doesn’t take much get somebody on the field. Put a little grass protection down. It’s not going to be perfect and it’s not necessarily going to be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. People don’t care if they’re getting the chance to play.”

As the Loons prepared for theirs, kismet.

"Roughly a month after we had planned that, the City of Midland secured 25 percent of the cost to build a Miracle League field -- we didn't even know they were trying," Bloch said. "So on Inclusion Day, after we had our Miracle League game, the Michigan Baseball Foundation [owner and operator of the Loons] made a $100,000 donation toward building the Miracle Field in Midland."

The nearest Miracle League was some 30 miles away in Bridgeport, where Loons manager John Shoemaker had volunteered in 2011, and following assignments elsewhere in the Dodgers system, continued to do so upon returning to Great Lakes in 2018. One of the Bridgeport Miracle League's players, Kellen O'Connell, 14 last summer, was 5 when he made a lasting impression on Shoemaker. At Inclusion Day in 2019, he threw out the first pitch and earned the Loons a MiLBY Award. The creation of the new facility in Midland -- Middle of the Mitt Miracle Field -- will mean O'Connell and other players with disabilities can play ball much closer to home.

The Baseballtown Charities Dream League would have played its third season in 2020.Reading Fightin Phils

Miracle Leagues, or Dream Leagues, are increasingly common across the country, as is Minor League teams' involvement with them. The Reading Fightin Phils, Eastern League affiliate of the Phillies, used their Baseballtown Charities to raise more than $1 million to build a Baseballtown Dream League at a facility that's a five-minute drive from their FirstEnergy Stadium home.

“The field itself is custom-designed," Baseballtown Charities executive director and R-Phils director of marketing Tonya Petrunak said. "It accommodates wheelchairs obviously, because of the turf and the bases aren’t raised, so there’s no tripping hazard. The dugouts have larger than average openings and we have a playground installed by a local nonprofit -- the I Am Able Foundation put in a playground for special needs kids.

"That building project took about a year and now we have over 200 kids with physical and mental disabilities playing baseball. This would have been our third season, and it’s been growing incrementally each year. ... We have weekend leagues and weekday leagues, and we have a fall league. We have not only children who play, but there’s a 14-and-under league and a 15-and-over league. ... For people over 21 with disabilities, there’s no school, no programs to be in, so we have a lot of people over 21, men and women, who play with us.”

Baseballtown Dream League players develop a relationship with R-Phils players over the course of the season, welcoming the club to the Dream League's Opening Day festivities and heading over to FirstEnergy Stadium to play softball on the field during the Eastern League campaign.

It's a meaningful arrangement but hardly an uncommon one. Chuck Domino, president of Baseballtown Charities, travels to Minor League communities as a consultant. He grew determined to build the league after seeing successful examples of Dream Leagues and Miracle Leagues around the country.

A playhouse grows in Brooklyn

In the Minors, ideas -- especially those related to promotions or inclusion efforts -- often spread from team to team. Christina Moore, director of community relations and entertainment for the Class A Short Season Brooklyn Cyclones, found inspiration at the Promotion Seminar (the annual industry event renamed the Innovators Summit last year). In September 2018 in an Iowa convention hall, she was awestruck during a presentation about Kannapolis' Cam's Clubhouse project -- a Golden Bobblehead-winning endeavor through which the team converted executive office space into a permanent sensory room.

"I’m listening and my wheels are turning, trying to figure out how to do something with our particular ballpark," Moore said. "Using an office is out of the question because our ballpark is a great ballpark, but we have limited space."

She hit upon an idea that would make a sensory room work in Brooklyn but wouldn't be an easy sell, figuratively or literally: What if the Cyclones were to give up a luxury suite?

“I got looked at like I had 10 heads, I’m not going to lie," Moore said. "There was a little apprehension. It’s not like I walked in and pitched it and everybody said, “OK, let’s go.’ I had to lay out a plan, and that involved getting a sponsor to help with the loss of revenue."

The Cyclones had hosted autism-friendly nights and developed relationships with various local organizations, so Moore got to work searching through those networks for a sponsoring partner. At one pitch meeting, she caught the attention of Michael DeCillis, an attorney and community advocate who's worked as a police officer and a special education teacher and whose son, Parker, has autism.

"Almost immediately we got a personal contribution from the DeCillis family," Moore said. "I was pitching his boss. He stayed quiet, so I thought he had no interest. When I was done with my pitch, he told me his story about his son.

“He was our initial sponsor and then we were able to create a partnership with Curemark LLC, a biotech and pharma company geared specifically toward drug remedies helping children on the spectrum. Their founder and CEO, Dr. Joan Fallon, is a world-renowned autism expert, and on top of that she’s a huge baseball fan. ... When she came on board, it was, ‘OK, this is a go. We’ve got the sponsors in place.’”

The Mets' New York-Penn League affiliate converted a luxury suite into the Puzzle Piece Playhouse in 2019.Brooklyn Cyclones

Working with another partner, Fun & Function, the team finished the project for the 2019 New York-Penn League season. The Puzzle Piece Playhouse welcomes up to 12 people (usually between one and three families) per game.

It's a custom-designed and outfitted "sensory suite for parents and children to come use free of charge and experience a Brooklyn Cyclones game that they never [otherwise] would," Moore explained. “They have the opportunity to go in and out, onto the seats outside, and if at some point there’s too much sensory overload, they can go in and close the glass doors. There’s a fun tunnel they can go in. … There are lots of instances where the indoor/outdoor experience elongates a stay and [creates] a way to experience the game and be comfortable."

Families reserve the Puzzle Piece Playhouse in advance, and the Cyclones send a detailed questionnaire. Based on responses, the team will acknowledge (or not) the party as the Puzzle Piece Family of the Game with a first-pitch option, send (or not) mascot Sandy the Seagull for a visit and more. Puzzle Piece families also are welcomed through the VIP entrance and greeted by Moore or another staff member in an ushering process meant to reduce wait time and eliminate the need to stand in lines.

“I knew it was the right thing to do, but you don’t realize just how big a difference it can make," Moore said. "You’re opening up an opportunity for fans you’ve never had at the ballpark and making sure they get to experience baseball in an environment that’s conducive to their needs. And also [welcome] fans who have come before but were only able to stay until the third inning. Now that family stays past the fireworks.

“I’ve worked for MiLB for … this would have been my 10th season. The day we cut the ribbon on the Puzzle Piece Playhouse is my proudest moment, without a doubt."

Taking the inspiration for the Puzzle Piece Playhouse full circle, Moore gave a presentation at the Innovators Summit last fall. Representatives from several other teams told her afterward that they hoped to create similar spaces.

(Don't) wait 'til next year

O'Connell, Emmett and Minor League Baseball are trying to make this silent summer count. Through the Disability Inclusion Center of Excellence, they want to offer an example of something teams can do right now: building a page on their website that will answer a bevy of accessibility-related questions fans may have.

"Everything from ‘Where’s the parking for people in wheelchairs?’ to ‘If I need help getting my hot dog, can I flag somebody down?’ and ‘Is there a sensory room?’" O'Connell said. "So one thing [the Disability Inclusion Center of Excellence] will do is say, ‘Here’s a sample. Now go build your page’ and people can download what they need."

Outreach to teams that aren't yet a part of #MiLBUnlimited remains a priority, too.

“I think our challenges are, first and foremost, gaining the buy-in of the team," Emmett said. "And that really hasn’t been so difficult. We’re looking at all of these projects as business-based. We know one in four Americans have a disability. That’s a huge fan base for Minor League Baseball. That’s a huge employment base for Minor League Baseball teams.

“But there are some things that team leadership just doesn’t know. Team leadership is used to ... bringing in people with disabilities for one night and having them throw out the first pitch or maybe they might have a sensory room. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the disability community is so much more and so much deeper than that. Once we get that buy-in, we can also make sure the local disability community is bought into the team -- that they know that the team welcomes and hires people with disabilities. We need to ... make sure people in the disability community understand that the effort is genuine.”

Employment is a huge part of that, Emmett said, pointing out that while it's generally acknowledged that the staff of any customer-service based operation should look like the community it's meant to serve, that principle is sometimes overlooked when it comes to hiring people with disabilities. O'Connell is on the same page.

"We’re interested in giving people the opportunity to be a part of baseball and make a little money too," she said. "That’s especially great for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities because those people get left behind more than anybody else in that area. Sometimes, somebody trying to hire people with disabilities sees somebody with Down syndrome and gets really worried. ‘I don’t know what their mental capacities are’ or ‘Are they able to work?’ We want to end that stigma.”

And ending stigma extends to the social atmosphere of a ballpark. O'Connell foresees brief videos, inspired by the "End the Awkward" campaign from the UK, playing between innings to simultaneously entertain and educate.

“Ninety percent of what I do is education on that simple thing -- get over the uncomfortable," O'Connell said. "We want to ... sort of normalize disability. It’s an aspect of life. There’s nothing uncomfortable about realizing somebody has a disability. Or there doesn’t have to be. The power of Minor League Baseball is that it can bring a community together and make that message really clear.”

Josh Jackson is an editor for Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.