Kaleb is itching to put on his batting helmet.
“Can I get one yet?” he asks his mom, pointing at the row of helmets lined up along the dugout. Just a sec, she says. Your game’s about ready to start.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning at the AllPlay baseball field. It’s the Junior Jays’ first game of the season.
It’s the first time Kaleb has played a sport. It’s the first time he has been a part of any kind of team.
“Other kids have a hard time relating to him,” says his mom, Mindy Johnson, as she sits in the front row of the bleachers and readies her camera. “And their parents … sometimes they don’t know what to do, either.”
Today is different. Today Kaleb is proudly wearing a Junior Jays jersey given to him for free when he joined the Miracle Baseball League, Omaha’s one-of-a-kind league that plays on Omaha’s one-of-a-kind field. Today the 7-year-old is surrounded by his new Junior Jays’ teammates, the sorts of kids who never get to play, who always have to watch from the sidelines: Kids using walkers or wheelchairs. Kids who can’t see or speak. Kids who can’t throw a baseball or catch it.
Today’s game between the Jays and the Marlins will be marked by the absence of many things. There is no dirt on this field, no grass, no pitcher’s mound. There will be no strikes, no outs, and no one will win or lose — every game in the Miracle Baseball League ends in a tie.
But today’s game will also feature quite a few things that we have squeezed out of competitive youth sports. There will be plenty of smiles here, and laughter, and the sweetest postgame handshake in the history of postgame handshakes. There will be something else, too: A mother’s earnest hope that her son will fit in better on this baseball diamond than he does in other places.
“He has one friend,” Mindy says quietly. “We’re hoping he makes more here.”
But we’re losing track of what’s important. We’re losing track of those batting helmets.
Kaleb is intently studying the line of helmets along the dugout fence now, walking slowly by each one, carefully touching them as if they are priceless Egyptian artifacts.
Finally he picks a black helmet with a face mask and slams it joyfully onto his head. He likes helmets because he thinks they make him invisible. He thinks they transform him into a whole other person.
“Nowwww stepping to the plate,” says the public address announcer, a volunteer sitting at a card table just behind home plate. “It’s Kalllllllllebbbbbbbbbbbb Johnnnnnnnnnnson!”
Mindy points her digital camera and starts snapping photos like crazy.
Bruce Froendt first imagined a scene like this, or something close to it, when he happened to flip on HBO a decade ago. The channel was re-airing a story about the first year of a unique baseball league in Atlanta. That city had built a special field and founded a league so kids with disabilities could play for the first time.
Bruce watched, transfixed. Then he had a thought. “That would be pretty cool to do here,” he thought.
By happenstance, the Omaha man watching HBO that day was tailor-made to transform this thought into reality. Bruce is a successful businessman who built a credit card processing company — and a killer set of business and fundraising contacts — before selling it and retiring in 2008. Bruce is also a former football player who dove into a swimming pool one day in 1984.
He thought the water in the pool was deep. It was shallow.
Bruce has been using a wheelchair for 31 years now. He understands what it’s like to roll to the edge of a playground or swimming pool or baseball field and stop.
“I bonked my head and everything changed,” he says. “I saw the world in an entirely different way. But I also remembered the way that I knew the world before.”
Driven by that memory, he took his idea and went straight to the Omaha foundation world’s big guns: Kiewit. Scott. Sherwood. Lozier. He chipped in a chunk of his own money. He raised $1.5 million.
In 2008, he opened the AllPlay Complex at Seymour Smith Park. It features a completely handicapped-accessible water park, the first of its kind in Omaha. It also features this baseball field made of rubber, painted brown and green and designed to get disabled kids onto the field.
(A second AllPlay complex, this one featuring a fully-accessible playground and fishing pier, opened in Benson on Sunday.)
In 2009, Bruce got those kids onto his new field by starting the Miracle Baseball League. Forty kids joined that year, paying no entry fee and receiving a uniform, a free snack at each game and invites to other family events.
This year, 274 signed up to play. That includes 50 developmentally disabled adults who play on a second field. It includes an 8-year-old named Jack from Hastings — his parents wake him before dawn and drive three hours to this special ballpark. And it includes Kaleb, who is autistic and also diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Bruce is determined to keep the league free, because many parents of disabled children are awash in red ink from medical costs. That’s why he is asking for the public’s help during Wednesday’s Omaha Gives, the 24-hour online fundraising event hosted by the Omaha Community Foundation during which hundreds of local nonprofits compete for prizes and matching funds.
But we’re losing focus again — Kaleb is stepping to the plate.
Some in the Miracle Baseball League hit off a tee. Some who can’t swing have their parents swing for them. Kaleb opts to swing at underhand tosses from an adult pitcher.
He whiffs once right-handed and remembers something important — he’s a lefty. So he switches to the left-hand batters box, watches the pitch float in and smacks a sharp grounder up the middle.
“Run, Kaleb!” yells his mom from the stands. And then this, louder: “Put the bat down, Kaleb! Put the bat down first!”
Kaleb puts the bat down and sprints to first. He sprints to second on another base hit. He takes off his helmet while standing on second, looks a little bored — “he’s probably going to try to steal or something” his mom says — and then runs as hard as he can to third when another Blue Jay hits a grounder.
There is a lefty up now, swinging hard and laughing after each miss. “He’s looking to put one in the trees, ladies and gentlemen!” bellows the PA announcer.
The lefty makes contact, and the announcer gives the crowd the play-by-play as Kaleb barrels toward home.
“Here comesssssss Kaleb! And he’s… SAAAAAAAAAAFE.”
Mindy laughs and cheers and takes more photos and looks like she might cry. Kaleb’s teammates cheer, too, and so do the fans, and in this moment it’s easy to imagine Kaleb making a friend or two by season’s end.
Kaleb stomps on home plate with both feet, takes off his helmet, returns to the dugout and swills some concession stand root beer. Then it’s time to take the field. Kaleb runs out to play second base, but sprints quickly back toward the dugout.
He forgot something. He forgot his favorite batting helmet. He grabs it, joyfully slams it onto his head, and returns to the field.
“Some of the kids wear eye black,” Bruce says. “Some of them wear their uniforms to bed. The costs do add up, the jerseys and trophies and the insurance.”
“But this is the payoff,” he says of game day. “The reward is seeing what you see in these kids’ eyes.”