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Purely Baseball : Handicapped Youths Play for Love of Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lineup card had been filled out and the Greater Bellflower Falcons, young ballplayers in red and white uniforms, sat in the dugout before their long-awaited first Little League game.

“Wish me luck, Mike, I’m terribly nervous,” tall 16-year-old first baseman Aaron Taylor said to teammate Mike DeLine.

“Good luck, Aaron, good luck,” said Mike, 15. “Where’s my Spalding mitt? My mitt?”

Linked by a love for the game and the learning disorder aphasia, they went out to right field to warm up for the game with the West Lakewood Angels. Aaron used both hands to catch, Mike preferred one.

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“Mr. Blankenship,” Mike said to Coach Jim Blankenship, “this is going to be an exciting game.”

In the dugout, catcher Ramon Munoz, who is 12 and has cerebral palsy, put on his mask, shin guards and chest protector--and became hidden.

Eric Swift, 9, a dwarf, sat on the bench, his legs high off the ground, and held a fielder’s glove in one hand and his red hat in the other. Ready to play, he said nothing.

But Billy Vassar, who is hyperactive, had a lot to say as he looked out at the roadside diamond called Riverpark Stadium in Lakewood: “See that green fence? See the ball? Whack! Hopefully, there will be three on base so I can hit them all home.”

It was time on this late Saturday afternoon to play ball in Little League’s new Challenger division, which enables youngsters ages 6 to 18 who have physical or mental disabilities to play organized baseball for the first time.

Last year, Challenger was a pilot program with five leagues nationally. Now there are 275. The Falcons, Angels and the Plaza A’s of Long Beach form the Southeast/Long Beach area’s league.

“One of the fathers in the bleachers said he never thought he’d see his son play baseball,” said Janet Smith, vice president of the West Lakewood Little League.

The West Lakewood Angels, in white, took the field. Their first baseman was on crutches and the girl playing second patted her glove as she sat in a wheelchair. A “buddy” stood ready to push her chair.

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Aaron was up first. Hitting off a tee, he popped the ball to the pitcher’s mound and reached first base with a single.

Cheered by the crowd, Natalie Gosnell, 10, hit the ball next. Despite cerebral palsy, she ran hard, her pigtails flying beneath her batting helmet. Out at first, she returned to the dugout, where for a brief moment she was inconsolable.

Mike then drove in Aaron with a single.

“I made it all the way home,” Aaron said. His butterflies had vanished.

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Billy then proved he was not all talk. He belted a triple that reached the fence.

Little Eric, as he is called, stepped up. After the tee was lowered, he tapped the ball in front of the plate. He churned for first along a route that must have seemed a mile long.

An Angel infielder fielded the ball and threw toward first base. Eric, urged on by fans who watched with wonderment, was in a tight race with the ball, which rolled and rolled . . . and then stopped in the grass. Eric kept going and was safe.

The Falcons went on to add several runs, although in this league no one keeps score. Finally, West Lakewood was up.

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“Batting for the Angels, Heather KIRBY!” announced a youngster over the public-address system.

Heather, who is 13 and paralyzed by spina bifida, adjusted her batting helmet and, after several carefully measured practice swings that tantalized the fans, swatted the ball off the tee. Her buddy pushed her to first. She was out, but got an RBI.

Megan Pegueros, taking her turn, cocked her bat, but then spun around when the announcer misidentified her.

“It’s not Heather, it’s MEGAN,” she said, looking up sternly at the booth.

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A chant of “Bry-an, Bry-an, Bry-an” went up from the grandstand when 15-year-old Bryan Dilbeck, an aluminum crutch in his right hand and a bat in his left, stood at the plate.

He hit the ball solidly, threw down his bat, grabbed his other crutch from a buddy and hobbled down the line.

Mike, the second baseman, fielded the ball quickly. His throw to first was caught carefully by Aaron for an easy out.

But Bryan, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, kept going. When he at last reached first base, he thrilled the crowd by planting a crutch hard on the bag, as if staking out a wonderful new territory--which it was.

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“I’ve been playing baseball since I was 5 years old,” Bryan said.

But never like this, his grin verified, in a real Little League game.

After several innings, it had become early evening and cloudy, but the game’s specialness still shone through with brilliant clarity.

This was Little League at its purest. There were no men browbeating children into tears over muffed plays. It was an atmosphere without tenseness, and in it the kids thrived.

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There were more thrills. Aaron got his third hit and pigtailed Natalie got her first. Little Eric belly-flopped into home plate and Heather rode across it.

The buddies were as proud as the players. “I could get used to this,” said Jeff Myers, 11.

When the game was over, and no one had lost, the teams met by the pitching mound and touched palms. Then they walked across the dirt of the base paths, still fresh with Heather’s tire tracks, to their waiting families.

Bryan Dilbeck’s included his grandmother, Dee Zimmer, who often pitches to him in the back yard. The young first baseman was reluctant to leave, and Zimmer, who waited patiently with her folding chair, understood.

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“You talk about heart . . . baseball can’t get any better than this,” said Larry Myers, a tanned, middle-aged man in a blue cap who had been a spectator.

A coach in the regular Bellflower Little League and Jeff Myers’ father, he added: “If the kids on my team showed half this determination, I’d be pleased.”

Although the hour was late, Myers still had on dark glasses.

Behind them, he knew, his tears would not be seen.

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