What my son with Down syndrome taught me about baseball — and life

Rick Wilber and his son, Rich, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., where they cheer on the Tampa Bay Rays.
Rick Wilber and his son, Rich, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., where they cheer on the Tampa Bay Rays.
(Rick Wilber)

We’re at Tropicana Field, my son and I, watching as Anthony Santander strikes out swinging to end the top of the fourth inning. He’s the 12th Oriole in a row to make an out. Drew Rasmussen is, at the moment, throwing a perfect game for the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s early, but another inning or two like this and things will be very interesting, indeed.

My son, Rich, has been my companion at a hundred or more of these Sunday matinee baseball games in the Trop over the years. He’s 53 years old. He’s a baseball fan. He has Down syndrome.

We’ve seen all manner of great catches in the outfield, splendid glove work on the infield, superb pitching and timely hitting in those years. Our most exciting moment might be the time we watched Randy Winn hit an inside-the-park grand slam in 1999. Rich and I cheered like crazy for that one, high-fives and hugs. Rich is definitely a hugger.

Or the time 20 years later when center fielder Kevin Kiermaier took one off the wall and sent a rocket to shortstop Willy Adames, who threw a perfect strike from short center to catcher Travis d’Arnaud to nail the Astros’ Jose Altuve; we high-fived and hugged several times, Rich and I, in those pre-pandemic days, and then high-fived with those around us too.

But a pitcher with a perfect slate after four? That’s totally out of Rich’s realm. He lives his life in the now. He looks at me and smiles. “Time for Dippin’ Dots,” he says, and I nod. Yes, the middle of the fourth is our time for Dippin’ Dots. Rich has his well-ordered priorities. I head to the concessions area to buy some ice cream.

Rich Wilber will watch some golf and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on TV, but his father says he's mostly a baseball fan.
Rich Wilber will watch some golf and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on TV, but his father, Rick Wilber, says he’s mostly a baseball fan.
(Rick Wilber)

I’ve always suspected the world is pretty chaotic to Rich, who’s done a great job of making up for his intellectual deficits by having a high social IQ and keeping his world as organized as he can.

He’s polite and gracious and friendly, a real have-a-nice-day sort of guy who you can’t help but be friendly to in return. And if you see his apartment where he lives on his own (with a lot of help from a lot of us hovering around) you’d admire its neatness. Everything in its place and a place for everything, that’s Rich.

So when it comes to Rays baseball, we do things a certain way, every single game. Game time this day, Aug. 14, was 1:40 p.m. so I picked Rich up at his apartment at 12:30. He was wearing his Rays T-shirt, exactly like the one I’m wearing. He had his Rays cap on and, daring to be different, I’m wearing my beige cap for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, our local second division pro soccer team.

I’m a soccer fan, you see, but Rich doesn’t care for soccer, or hockey, or basketball for that matter. The athletes are moving too fast, I think, and there’s too much happening. On TV he’ll watch golf — the pace more to his liking — and Buccaneer football, because that’s our home team and they, mostly, win.

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But it’s baseball, on TV or in person, that’s his game, with its orderly procession of innings and its various rituals. We stopped at the concession stand on the way in and he bought a cheeseburger, his usual, along with Dasani water. Then we walked to our seats, Section 120, Row DD, Seats 1 and 2. Come look for us sometime, we’ve already re-upped for next season.

I made sure he was settled before going to get a beer and some peanuts (hey, it’s a ballgame, and I’d already lunched at home with my patient wife, Robin). We’d arrived early, as always, to watch the Rays stretch out and run and throw the ball back and forth in right field while the grounds crew groomed the infield one more time.

We watched as a long line of fans, most of them young, lined up to get autographs from whichever Ray was doing the signing that day down at the low wall separating the first row from the field. Then we watched a kid try to hit a plastic ball over the wall in left center for some ice cream. This little home-run derby takes place on the warning track before every Sunday game. Sometimes the kids struggle, but this kid is a hitter. He needs six for the ice cream and he sends 10 over the wall. Give him another ice cream.

We watched the ceremonial first pitch, and then we listened to some lucky child say, “Play ball” into the microphone. We stood for the national anthem, caps over our hearts, as the young woman singing it nailed the high note on “free.”

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Drew Rasmussen throws during a baseball game in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Tampa Bay Rays starter Drew Rasmussen delivers a pitch in St. Petersburg, Fla.
(Scott Audette / Associated Press)

Rasmussen got through the first inning on eight pitches. Four-seam and cutter and a slider for seasoning. A strikeout and two easy fly balls. Rich and I hardly noticed. Rich had finished his cheeseburger and fries and was helping me out with my peanuts.

The Rays went down easy themselves, and Rasmussen was back on the mound to get a pop-up out, another strikeout, and an easy grounder to short. Twelve pitches and he was very much in charge. Rich got interested when the Rays came up and David Peralta walked, but it came to nothing.


Top of the third for Rasmussen was a foul out, groundout, fly out and the Rays trotted in to hit. Rich and I were hoping for a run or two. Or three. After a single and a double, Randy Arozarena, who was on a hot streak, sent one out of the park, putting the Rays in front 3-0.

Top of the fourth and Rasmussen got a strikeout, a groundout, and another strikeout. Ten pitches and it all looked effortless. I went for the ice cream.

So now I’m back from my Dippin’ Dots assignment just in time to see Jose Siri fly out to left. Rasmussen takes the mound again, but Rich and I are busy with our ice creams, only half watching until I note the flyout to center and the easy pop out to second. A strikeout ends the top half and you can’t help but notice: Rasmussen is still perfect.

I hint at that to Rich, whispering, “Shhh, Rich, no hits, no runs, no errors for the Orioles.” He smiles but doesn’t say anything, and it occurs to me that Rich won’t know what a perfect game is.

I turn around to look at my friends who sit two rows back. They like Rich and he likes them. They always take a picture of us together, with the field in the background. They both look at me and smile and nod. They’re seeing what I’m seeing, but it’s not something we can talk about. Don’t jinx it.

Rich Wilber, 53, has Down syndrome. He plays third base for the Therapeutic Tritons.
Rich Wilber, 53, has Down syndrome. He plays third base for the Therapeutic Tritons, a baseball team created as part of a therapeutic recreation program in St. Petersburg, Fla.
(Rick Wilber)

When Rich was born at Maternity Hospital in St. Louis (yes, we’re originally from that great baseball town) I was in the waiting room (where the man had to stay in those days) when the doctor, whose name I won’t say, came in to tell me that my son had Trisomy 21. Down syndrome. His advice was for us to give him up for adoption and for my wife and I to get on with our lives.


He meant well, did Dr. X., and perhaps that was the advice commonly given in 1969, but I said no. I also said I wanted the baby to be Richard Jr., after the doctor suggested I should choose a different name, since this son had Down syndrome. I said no. I don’t recall asking Rich’s mother about these decisions, and perhaps I should have. But Richard Jr. he remained, and in our hands he remained.

He was charming and funny and adorable as a toddler, but slow to catch onto things. He crawled at 1, walked at 2, had a hard time being understood even when he began to speak because of the overly large tongue common to Down syndrome people.

Now, with Rich beside me, Rasmussen wraps up the top of the seventh — shhh — still perfect.

Our normal game day is marked by ritual: picking him up at his apartment, finding that one particular parking spot near Haslam’s Bookstore, the cheeseburger, the players stretching and warming up, the kids hitting plastic balls over the centerfield fence, the color guard from wherever, the introduction of the lineups, the ceremonial first pitch, the national anthem, the fourth-inning Dippin’ Dots. All of that, every bit of it, leads up to the Seventh Inning Stretch (capitalization mine). It’s the highlight of the game for Rich. Everything builds toward that great, joyous singalong.

We stand, we put our caps over our hearts for “God Bless America” (my real thoughts on that new ‘tradition’ are for some other day) and then it’s time for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Standing, we put our arms over each other’s shoulder and then we sway back and forth, and with great gusto we go right through the song and crescendo at the end, putting our arms in the air and counting up with our fingers, for “One, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game.”

And then we leave.

Yes, in a normal game, we’d leave. For Rich, the score matters a lot less than the rhythm of the game, the pacing, the climax. Which is now over. Nothing to see here. Every time we’ve left, and I would walk by our friends two rows back and shrug and they’d always smile. They know it’s the way things are with Rich.

Except for today, when I ask if we can stay and, seeing his frown, resort to bribing him. Rich knows he has me. We negotiate. Didn’t he want to see the perfect game? He shrugs. Perfection is not at all what Rich is all about. Enjoying what you do, trying your best, being a good person, saying hello with a smile, being nice: that’s what matters.


But a perfect game! I offer $5. He demurs. I offer $7. He demurs again. How about $10? Ten dollars! And he says yes.

Thank goodness. I look back to my friends, who’d been pleading with him, too, to stay, and say, “We’re staying. Cost me 10 bucks, but we’re staying.” They laugh.


So here we are, the top of the eighth and all 20,000 or so in the ballpark know what’s going on. There’s a low murmur from a crowd caught up in every pitch.

It finally clicks for Rich. “No hitters?” he asks me.

“No nothing,” I say. “Nobody’s reached first.”

I’m still not sure if it’s really sunk in for him but he seems totally focused on each pitch. The Orioles’ Ramón Urías takes a strike, then a ball, then grounds out for the first out. Rougned Odor strikes out after several agonizing foul balls. Austin Hays swings and misses twice, takes two balls, then grounds out. A perfect eighth inning.

As the Rays come in to hit, I ask Google on my phone when the last perfect game happened. It was Aug. 15, 2012, when Félix Hernández of the Mariners threw a perfect game against, ironically, the Tampa Bay Rays. There have only been 23 perfect games in Major League Baseball history, and not a one by our Rays.

In the bottom of the eighth the Rays go quietly, but no one cares about any of that. I turn to look at my friends. Their eyes are wide. They nod. I nod back. I look at Rich.


“Three more outs,” he says. He’s into it now.

Rich and I have been athletes our whole lives in one way or another, and we come from a sports family. I played football and baseball in college. Rich did a great job in the Special Olympics. When he was young, he did them all, track and field, basketball, soccer. He was a Special O’s superstar.

Catchers Joe Garagiola, left, and Del Wilber of the St. Louis Cardinals, chat during morning workout of the team in 1947.
Catchers Joe Garagiola, left, and Del Wilber of the St. Louis Cardinals, chat during morning workout of the team at their training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., March 2, 1947.
(Bill Chaplis / Associated Press)

His grandfather, my dad, was a major leaguer, playing for the Cardinals, Phillies and Red Sox. A journeyman catcher as a player, he became a coach, a scout and a pennant-winning minor league manager (and for one game, which he won, a major league manager). Del Wilber, you can look him up.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Rich finally got his chance to play baseball on a team. Our city of St. Petersburg has an outstanding therapeutic recreation program for people like Rich, and one ambitious coach, Tony Ruffin, started up a team, the Therapeutic Tritons, complete with uniforms and a game at the end of a series of practices.

It was wonderful. Rich played third base where he’d watch the grounders go by with disdain if they weren’t close. But if you hit the ball right to him, he could get a glove on it and then almost make the throw to first. Almost, in fact, might be the word to describe Rich’s life, where he has his limitations and recognizes them with a shrug of the shoulders. He isn’t a worrier. He does his best with what he has. Almost is with him every day of his life.

When Rich was born, the doctor, whose name I won’t say, came in to tell me that my son had Trisomy 21. Down syndrome. His advice was for us to give him up for adoption and for my wife and I to get on with our lives.

— Rick Wilber, father

Which is pretty much exactly what Drew Rasmussen has been doing as we watch, on a plane so much higher it’s ethereal for those of us in the stands. In the top of the ninth he gives up a screamer to Jorge Mateo down the third base line. It is almost foul; it is almost caught. Instead, it’s a double and the magic is over, the bubble burst.


Rich understands immediately. Along with the rest of us, he stands up and applauds Drew Rasmussen for what he’s achieved. Almost. The Orioles get that run in, and the game ends 4-1.

Then Rich and I walk the mile back to the car and drive home. On the way, he spots a little grocery store, points at it and says, “Don’t forget, $10.” I pull in and park, buy a candy bar with a $20 bill, and give Rich his 10.


When Rich was 6 years old, his mother left us. She took up with a body shop guy who’d worked on our bumper. A motorcycle. Adventure. Arizona. She was gone.

After she left, I sat Rich down and explained what was happening. I promised I would never leave him, ever. Rich didn’t understand what I was telling him, I suppose, but I’ve kept my promise and baseball is part of it.

As most baseball fans know by now, the Rays made the playoffs, and their season ended Saturday when the Cleveland Guardians prevailed in the bottom of the 15th inning with a walk-off home run.

But well before that game — and a week after Rasmussen’s brush with perfection — Rich and I were back in the stands, eating Dippin’ Dots in the fourth and belting out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh. And then we went home.

Rick Wilber is a novelist, award-winning short story writer and editor living in St. Petersburg, Fla.