A dream to honor the late father of Major League great Cal Ripken Jr. converged Wednesday with the legacy of Otto Zehm as Spokane officials gathered in the rain to dedicate a new baseball field at Mission Park for kids with disabilities.
Spokane Mayor David Condon and Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref joined park staff members who worked with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, secured state grants and persuaded local donors to raise a total of about $560,000 to fund the Mission Park Ability Field. The field is adjacent to the only playground structure in the city that provides access to kids with mobility issues or other special needs.
“This is the park Otto Zehm played in as a child,” Condon said, referring to a mentally ill man who died after a violent encounter with Spokane police. “This has become somewhat of a local destination for children with disabilities. (The ball field) will have a synthetic surface. With the dugouts and digital scoreboard … it will make the kids feel like they are playing in the majors.”
Spokane Parks and Recreation officials had dedicated the playground equipment years before the city settled a civil suit brought by Zehm’s family. As part of that settlement, the city agreed to a request by Zehm’s mother to place a plaque honoring Zehm in a gazebo at the park. The new ballfield was not a part of that settlement.
Zehm’s “mom wanted (the memorial) here because he came here all the time to play,” Waldref said. “He loved it here. It’s come full circle.”
Waldref said the ballfield only came about because city staff sought grants, contacted the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and worked with neighborhood groups who have successfully completed other projects, like providing exercise equipment for senior citizens at Mission Park.
The ballpark’s second phase, expected to be completed by this next summer, will add restrooms that comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, new paths and additional parking to make it easier for kids in wheelchairs to get to the new ballfield. Combined, the new projects will cost more than $800,000 to build.
The projects will “make it a regional destination for all kinds of families and people with disabilities,” Waldref said.
Bill Tsoukalas, speaking on behalf of the Ripken foundation, explained that Cal Ripken Jr. and his family created the nonprofit in 2007 to honor their father, who died in 1999. The foundation provides seed money for ballfields to serve disadvantaged youths.
The foundation’s initial goal was to build 50 ballfields across the country. The Spokane project becomes field number 66. It’s the 16th field designed specifically for kids with disabilities, Tsoukalas said.
“These are designed to deal with at-risk kids,” he said. “Whether its two working parents … or a kid with disabilities, this is a way the foundation can help you help your kids do the right thing.”
The foundation contributed the first $50,000. The city then won a grant from the state Recreation and Conservation Office for about $230,000 and local donations made the up the rest. The Kalispel Tribe of Indians donated the money for the scoreboard.
Larry Gorton, 69, attended the ceremony. He works with the local organization called Access 4 All Spokane, which visits dozens of venues in the city to rate them for how they accommodate people with special needs.
“We are not the ADA police, but we are here to promote accessibility,” said Gorton, who is deaf and spoke through an interpreter. “I grew up here (in Mission Park), too. It’s been a very slow process to change things. That’s why we are here is to encourage people to adapt to people with disabilities.”
He applauded the city staff’s work to reach out to the Ripken foundation, and the three-and-a-half year effort to secure grants and donations needed to make the ballfield happen.
“It’s more than a park,” Gorton said. “It shows the city is trying.”