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Monday, October 14, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Finding their potential: Buddy Ball allows youths with special needs to play

Bambino Buddy Ball players high-five each other on the ballfield. (Leslie Sigrah / Courtesy)
Bambino Buddy Ball players high-five each other on the ballfield. (Leslie Sigrah / Courtesy)

Yogi Berra, perhaps the greatest of all baseball philosophers, summed it up best.

“Love is the most important thing in the world,” he opined. “But baseball is pretty good, too.”

That’s especially true when the two forces come together.

Leslie Sigrah and a group of dedicated parents work to make that happen.

At its highest levels, baseball is a game played by marvelous physical specimens with reflexes honed by years of practice and dedication.

But at the game’s most impactful level, it simply transcends limitations.

Sigrah works in that transcendental part of the game, running a program called Bambino Buddy Ball, an organization supported by the Spokane Indians Youth Baseball program to allow disabled, physically challenged and special needs kids, between the ages of 5 and 20, to play the game on a field specifically designed to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.

The Bambino Buddy Ball season is wrapping up just as the Spokane Indians are opening theirs.

“I don’t think of this as a baseball program,” Sigrah said. “I think of this as a social skills program disguised as a baseball program.”

At the very least, Bambino Buddy Ball is both and it got its start when a group of determined parents decided their special needs children needed a chance to play a sport.

“My son and my daughter were both born with disabilities,” Sigrah said. “My son … I was told he would never play sports. I said ‘Well, that’s not going to happen.’ ”

Sigrah tells the story of one of her son’s earliest high school experiences. He ran into a volunteer from one of his games.

“He told my son how good he was and how much fun they’d had,” she explained. “He wanted to know if he could be his support player every game.

“My son got so much out of the program that he turned out and played quarterback on his ninth-grade football team. He graduated from Shadle Park with a 3.0 grade-point average and he’s now a student at Eastern Washington and living on campus.”

It’s been said that to find your true potential one must first find their limits, and then muster the courage to blow past them.

In a nutshell, that’s what Buddy Ball seeks to do.

“The things this program has done for my kids isn’t as impressive as what it’s been able to do for kids who are autistic or who are non-verbal,” Sigrah said. “It’s amazing to watch.”

Which is part of the beauty of Buddy Ball’s design. For once, parents are encouraged to sit in the stands to watch and enjoy the game.

Volunteers help and play alongside special needs kids, forming a strong bond between teammates. A number of baseball teams volunteer their time to help with the program, including the Ferris High team.

“You sign up as a baseball team to go in and volunteer with these kids, but in return you have no idea they have on you,” said Phil Helean, the executive director of the Spokane Youth Sports Association. “It’s an amazing experience.”

The league started out as a part of Little League Baseball, but found the boundaries too restrictive when it comes to drawing in special needs players. A shift to Babe Ruth helped.

In recent years the league has found a great fit with Spokane Indians Youth Baseball.

“We haven’t really pushed to find new players the last couple years because we wanted to make sure the transition to SIYB was successful,” Sigrah said. “We have between five and seven kids per team and most years we’ve had eight to 10 teams.

“This year we’ve had 10 teams and I think we’re ready to grow.”

The Indians were able to bring the Cal Ripken Jr. Foundation and its mission to build baseball fields across the country on board, which in turn got the city of Spokane involved.

Spurred on by private donations, the city debuted Irv Zackheim Family Field at Mission Park, a state-of-the-art, barrier-free, synthetic field that allows kids who rely on assistive devices to move freely.

The grand opening was too late for the Buddy Ball season in 2017, so the league is completing its first full year on its new field.

“I was there for the grand opening,” Helean said. “Once we finished the ceremony the kids started to play on the field. The smiles on the kids’ faces were incredible.”

Sigrah points out how much the league’s players get from being able to play, to be part of a team – and to be a teammate.

“The biggest thing that my kids got out of the baseball program was the commitment to something that you believe in and the pride in being who you are, however you are,” she said. “We are about to have our year-end banquet where we celebrate the year with the kids. For a lot of these kids, especially at the beginning of the year, they aren’t capable of sitting through a two-hour program like that. They can’t sit still that long. But now? They’re right there, right in the moment and totally involved in what we’re doing.

“It’s quite a transformation.”

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