Throngs of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmas join moms and dads in supporting their loved ones at bat or on the field.
But for the Jones family of Rhome, it’s a different kind of attachment. The family doesn’t have a loved one on the field, but parents Mark and Lori and their sons Brett, 17, and Ethan, 12, regularly volunteer for the league together.
“You go out there thinking you’re going to help those kids, but you find that they are helping you, too,” Mark said. “When you’re out there, you’re not thinking of all of the problems you have at home. You’re out there to help that kid or that adult, and you forget about all of the other problems.”His wife added: “It’s probably the one time I’m not looking at my watch. You’re excited about going – piling up and picking people up.”
Fellow church member and WCSNB Board President Jeri Kay Kao recruited Brett to help occasionally in the league about four years ago.
“She asked me to help with Zach (her son), then I was thrown in with other people,” the Decatur High School junior said. “It was different at first, but you kind of loosen up after the first couple of weeks when you get to know everybody. And now I love it.
“Those of us who can play sports kind of take it for granted,” he continued. “But when you see them out there having so much fun, it opens up your eyes to a whole different view. I’d rather be playing games with them than with friends like me.”
That enthusiasm drew the interest of his parents and brother.
“You see one doing it, and you see what fun they’re having,” Mark said. “Then you’ve got two going, then three. It’s turned into a family outing for us. Once you go, you’re kind of hooked. You get over the fear you have of not knowing anybody, not knowing what to do. But you go out there and find a place to plug in. Once you get out there and get started, you’ll have more fun there than anywhere else.”
And the same high levels of excitement echo among all four members of the family.
“That’s probably one of the reasons I enjoy it so much,” Lori said. “My boys like it. I don’t have to force them to do community service. They love it. They’re just as excited as I am.”
Their youngest son, Ethan, interjected, “I hurry to get ready on Saturday morning to go.”
“It’s the only time you get up early, and we’re not dragging you out of bed,” Mom quipped back.
Dad added: “That’s one thing – we can’t get the kids to do anything around the house, but they will get out there and help with that, even the ‘pick up’ part after. Once you get home, good luck trying to get them to do anything.”
Ethan doesn’t deny it.
“Every weekend, I don’t want to do anything but go there and spend the whole weekend playing baseball with them,” the Chisholm Trail Middle School seventh grader said. “I love it.”DIFFERENT ROLES
Volunteer roles in this league differ from typical responsibilities.
While Ethan may spend some time “as the DJ,” he also helps as catcher on the field – an animated, dancing catcher at that.
“That’s what I love about these games,” Lori said. “It’s all about having fun. A couple of weeks ago, one of our volunteers, Michael, was in a dancing mood. He just started dancing on the pitcher’s mound. One of our players over on the sideline was watching intently and kind of dancing. I grabbed his hand and said, ‘Let’s do a dance war.’
“And they did – right there, on the pitcher’s mound, in the middle of the game. It was fantastic; it was fun.”
The parents and older brother buddy with a player and guide their moves around the field.
“Some of them need for you to physically bat for them,” Lori said. “But we try to get at least a hand on the bat, and we’ll bat for them. Some can do it on their own so you just stand and cheer and watch out for the bat. We also run the bases with them or, if they’re wheelchair-bound, we’ll push their wheelchair. Everybody bats twice, and everybody gets to go to the outfield.”
The differing needs may intimidate some potential volunteers. But the family assures everyone that it’s possible to get past those doubts.
“Some people are afraid because they can’t communicate with the kids. But it’s OK. You learn. They may not be able to speak, but they communicate with you with smiles, holding your hand or hugging you,” Lori said. “They’re just like us. They just want to play. After a while, you don’t even see the disability. You just stop and think, ‘Oh, I don’t ever want to forget that smile. Or that excitement.'”
Mark added: “You get over the fear that you have. You’re afraid to help some of these kids because you don’t know how to hold them, you’re afraid you’re going to do something wrong. If you see someone having a hard time, people come over and give them a hand.”
Unlike typical baseball, there are no assigned fielding positions, and the ball being pitched and hit isn’t the only ball in play. Players take to the field wherever they find a spot and toss around several baseballs.
“If your buddy is able to, they’ll pick up the ball themselves and throw it back. Or we’ll pick it up and put it in their hands and have the activity of feeling the ball, talking to them about the ball and helping them move, some motor skills stuff,” Lori said.
The family also acknowledges that part of their jobs is to give the parents a break.
“They are so energetic,” Lori said. “You really have to keep an eye on them. But they are so much fun. They are loving being out there, which makes you love being out there with them.”
League organizers, grateful for any kind of support, do not require volunteers to show up every week.
“You aren’t expected to be there every weekend or even all day,” Mark said. “You do what you can when you can. But you’ll find that you want to be out there as much as possible. You get out there, everybody’s having a good time – cutting up, acting goofy and enjoying it. It’s a lot of laughs, and you make some good friendships. You want to be a part of that as much as possible.”
“It’s the best way to start your weekend off,” he said. “You have all the kids there so excited, and it’s like God is shining through every single one of them. It’s like God’s right there having fun with them, laughing with them. It’s amazing. I love it.”
Lori added: “It’s their time out. That’s what I love about it. Everyone’s on the same field, everybody’s winning. They have a blast. It’s just the best.
“This is baseball.”
To volunteer, call Kao at (940)577-1848.
ANOTHER WAY TO HELP…
Wise County Special Needs Baseball League is hosting a ZUMBA Fitness Dance for the Field’s Halloween fundraiser 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Decatur Multipurpose Building, behind McCarroll Middle School at 1201 Thompson St.
The event is hosted by Zumba instructor Simon Kao, and there will be costume judging with cash prizes, raffles, T-shirts and more. Tickets are $12 at the door or $10 in advance from any player, from Small Town Graphics in Bridgeport or by calling Jeri Kay at (940) 577-1848.
All funds raised will go to build a Miracle League baseball field to accommodate all players.