Athletes cheer each other on, talk strategy, share high-fives and enjoy the camaraderie of playing a team sport.
They make friends, celebrate good plays and congratulate each other while parents watch the games and support their children. After the game, everyone leaves with a smile and a desire to take the field again the following Saturday.
The only thing missing is the hard-core competition: There isn’t any. The score is an afterthought at best.
Just getting a chance to play is what matters, because the athletes might be in a wheelchair, have autism, or have some other physical, psychological or neurological challenge that makes playing more difficult. But none of those challenges prevent them from playing in the Buddy Baseball League, which partners each athlete with a “buddy” who guides them through the game, offers encouragement and allows them to take part in an experience that would otherwise be unavailable to them.
Now in its fifth year, Buddy Baseball plays its games on Saturdays, beginning in late September, at the Temple Terrace Recreation Complex, 6610 E. Whiteway Drive. But its players — boys and girls with special needs ages 10-22 — come from all over the Tampa Bay Region (some even as far away as Sarasota or Plant City), and the league provides helmets, bats and balls, as well as hat and T-shirt uniforms to all participants.
Each player is also assigned at least one buddy and will get a feel for their role during a designated practice before each scheduled game.
According to Russ Oberbroeckling, Buddy Baseball commissioner, the format allows disabled children to go from permanent spectators to instant athletes.
“They really can’t play baseball on a regular team because their disability holds them back,” Oberbroeckling said. “Now they can play on a team and be successful at it because they have a buddy there to help.” The activity also allows them to make friends and enjoy the camaraderie of organized sports.
Oberbroeckling also explained that the buddies, who are normally in the same age range as the participants, enjoy helping the players and being part of a special organization. But Buddy Baseball impacts people off the field as well: Parents get to cheer on their children and be part of a sports community that otherwise might not be available to them.
“It’s very social for the parents,” Oberbroeckling said. “For an hour and a half, they can go out to a baseball game, sit in the stands, enjoy the game and they’re meeting other people with similar situations.”
Amy Dean, a Lutz resident whose daughter plays Buddy Baseball, agrees that parents also benefit from the organization.
“We’ve gotten to where we know each other now, because the same parents tend to be there,” Dean said. They give each other tips and advice, and enjoy the games together.
But the biggest recipient is her daughter, April. The 20-year-old, who has hypotonic cerebral palsy, is starting her fifth season with Buddy Baseball (the league plays two seasons a year), and she’s gone from knowing nothing about the sport to practicing with her family between games.
“She’s looked forward to it from day one. Just absolutely loves it,” Dean said. The social component is also important, as Dean wants her daughter to be comfortable interacting and making friends in an atmosphere that includes people without disabilities, such as the buddies.
And April has had no problem making friends and enjoying herself at the games.
“I’ve been having fun at Buddy Baseball,” she said. “The coaches and the helpers, they help us with the batting and the pitching. We have a lot of fun at the games.”
While the Buddy Baseball League continues to grow in popularity (the league will have 90-100 players in two age divisions this season), it remains an expensive endeavor. A nominal fee for players only covers a small portion of the cost, and they offer a number of scholarships for families who might have financial difficulties. The league depends on outside sponsorships, donations and a charitable event to continue operating.
That event is the third annual Buddy Run 5k and Fun Run, which will be Nov. 3 at Lake Park, 17302 N. Dale Mabry Highway. Last year’s event featured approximately 260 runners and raised more than $10,000 for Buddy Baseball and Congregation Beth Am, a Reform Jewish congregation serving Lutz, New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, Westchase and all surrounding areas. The event includes a competitive 5k Run at 8 a.m., a one-mile Fun Run at 9 a.m. and a Buddy Dash for runners with special needs only.
For information about the event, e-mail . To register online, visit www.active.com and search for “Buddy Run 5k.”
The upcoming Buddy Baseball season runs from Sept. 28 through Nov. 9, and registration ends on Aug. 28.
For more information about Buddy Baseball or registration, visit www.buddybaseball.org, e-mail , or call (813) 416-5742.
By Michael Murillo