My team is the Eagles, East Nepean Little League, Challenger Division, Nepean, Ontario. Players come in all sizes and ages. There are girls and boys. Some kids get around in wheelchairs.
Nobody gives up on this team, and nobody on the field recognizes the former Parliamentary Budget Officer. My team is the most rewarding part of life outside of family; work is not even close.
I played baseball growing up in Thunder Bay but was never very good. One year I was backup first baseman on a city team. We travelled to Ottawa to play the provincial championships. The first-string baseman went on a hitting streak; I had travelled all the way and never played a single inning. Back home I told my mom, “I’m quitting. This is embarrassing.” She said, “No, you finish the season.”
To this day as a coach, it would break my heart to have a player on the bench. Everyone plays on the Eagles Challenger team, even if they need help to hit or get around the bases.
I’ve coached competitive baseball and hockey; it’s rigidly organized and so oriented to winning and losing that people forget it is only a game, and the players are children.
My sons played Little League ball and when they grew out of it a good friend, Steve Suttie, asked if I’d help him create an East Nepean league for children with challenges, “disabilities” of all sorts. I arrived at the park on my first day and saw boys and girls with different syndromes and afflictions. I asked myself, is this something I can do? That was fifteen years ago. With Steve and another friend, Marc LeLuca, I’ve enjoyed the best fifteen seasons of baseball of my life.
How does it work? Perhaps it’s divine intervention. Maybe it’s just love. The kids have big hearts and a great sense of humour. They care for each other. We’ve had anguished parents call up: “My child is in a wheelchair; he or she can’t do this.” We say, just show up, it works. Before long there is laughing and cheering and the three-hour Saturday morning is a highlight of the family’s week.
Every game ends in a tie. Nobody strikes out. If the player needs help swinging the bat, no problem: we help. If a player cannot run the bases, we help. We’re noisy. We like to get dirty. We like trash talking. We like high fives.
I usually pitch and do the play-by-play: “Who’s on second? Who’s on first? It’s all tied up at the bottom on the ninth. Where’s it gonna be? Where’s the play of the game? There it is – and he’s safe!” I don’t see “disability”. I do not like the word. I see play and fun. I see wonderful parents and siblings .
From time to time we host our own tournament. We dress up the diamond to look like a big league park with pennants and bleachers. In days past we would invite AAA-league players to show up. They would ask the kids for their autographs.
Many of our original players have grown up and are still with the team. Others call from time to time to tell me what’s happening with their lives. One invited me to their graduation. It’s like a little piece of heaven for me, and it keeps me grounded.
In 2006, my family suffered a great loss. We lost our son Tyler in an accident. He was 20. Tyler was a good baseball player. We had lots of good times with very good people in the Nepean community.
When I’m with the Eagles, I think of Tyler too. His spirit is strong and lives on. Play baseball. Just play.
(Editor’s note: the author in 2008 became the first Parliamentary Budget Officer in Canadian history, and is currently Research Chair on Canadian Government at the University of Ottawa).