In a league of their own

Special-needs students get a feel for baseball, anthem and all

May 23, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

Making it around all the bases for the first time with his team, Danny Anderson triumphantly tagged home plate and declared himself safe.

Then he proceeded to celebrate.

Removing his Orioles cap, the 18-year-old smoothed his hair, wiggled his hips and accepted high-fives from his teachers and classmates.

"I love baseball. Love baseball," Anderson said, before using sign language to emphasize his happiness.

Anderson was among the more than two dozen physically, mentally and developmentally disabled students who participated in yesterday's season-ending baseball game at the Ridge Ruxton School in Towson. The game wrapped up a community service project with students from St. Paul's School and St. Paul's School for Girls.

On most Tuesday mornings this spring, the private school students have traveled to Ridge Ruxton to work with special-needs students in their physical education classes and to practice baseball skills. Yesterday, in conjunction with the nonprofit organization League of Dreams, the students played a full-fledged baseball game.

Sort of.

There were no outs. There were no runs. The bases resembled oversized, inflated traffic cones. The bats were plastic and colorful, the balls big and bouncy. And some of the Ridge Ruxton students had St. Paul's escorts from to help them run or roll their wheelchairs between the bases.

But in many ways, the game looked and sounded like baseball.

There was a ceremonial first pitch - two, actually - tossed out and caught by teachers from the three schools. The national anthem blared from a portable stereo while several Ridge Ruxton students signed the lyrics and St. Paul's junior Rachel Ripken - yes, of that baseball family of Ripkens - unfurled an American flag. And Frank Kolarek, a Baltimore native who founded League of Dreams after playing minor league ball and then coaching and scouting in the majors, served as the announcer.

"We want them to feel, even for a moment, that they're in the big leagues," Kolarek said after the game. "They're having their name announced. And their team is cheering for them."

Ridge Ruxton, a Baltimore County public school in Towson, serves students ranging in age from 3 to 21 who need intensive special education. Its student body includes children with mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy and other disabilities. Its curriculum features a wide range of activities, from performances of African dance troupes and crafts projects to outings to area parks and athletic facilities.

"Physical activity is the great leveler," said Karen Ferguson, who mainly teaches life skills to students at the secondary level at Ridge Ruxton. "When you're out doing a physical sport, there are no labels. You're just using your gross and fine motor skills to pursue a sport. It's so helpful for their development. And if you can teach academic concepts through physical activity, you can reach so many parts of a child."

Another benefit, said Ridge Ruxton Principal Edmund Bennett, is the confidence boost inherent in playing a sport.

"It's about self-esteem as well. Just look at those faces light up," he said, standing on the first-base line as one student after another came tearing down the diamond. "It makes them feel good about themselves. They can see themselves be successful."

When Brianna Perholtz, 20, stepped to the plate for one of the game's last at-bats, she tapped the insoles of each shoe with the plastic bat before taking aim at the ball on the T-stand. Asked why, she later explained, "I like to run and I like to run faster."

Perholtz said she likes baseball - when she gets to see the Orioles win. And she said she enjoyed the League of Dreams program because, well, she liked the boys from the St. Paul's School.

Rachel Ripken, the 17-year-old daughter of Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., serves as a co-president of the Students for Disability Awareness Club at the St. Paul's School for Girls.

"It's always been a part of my life, and recently I've had to find my way to fit into that," she said of the sport that made her father a household name and the hero of little boys across the country. "Baseball is not something that I'm particularly good at, but I do have a passion for it. So it is really special to be able to share baseball with these kids."

Next year, she said, the club might pursue wheelchair basketball.

Many of the St. Paul's students said they worried initially that they wouldn't know how to interact with the Ridge Ruxton students. But those concerns quickly melted away with a few tosses of a ball.

"I think a lot of our guys might have thought that the kids wouldn't understand baseball or wouldn't like baseball," said Jack MacMullan, an assistant principal at the St. Paul's School. "But they understand baseball. And they love baseball just as much as they do - and getting out of class on a nice day to play sports together."

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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