By Martie Thompson
“Special things really do happen between the white lines.” So says George Vancore, lead umpire for the Field of Dreams Baseball League, a voluntary organization that provides a safe ADA certified facility where special needs children of all ages (kindergarten through 12th grade) can play baseball for free and be an active part of a thriving athletic association.
Opening day this year will be Saturday, Feb. 2 with the first game at 9 a.m. at Aberdeen Park. The entire community is invited to attend. Vancore says be prepared to be enlightened and have your heart touched.
At Field of Dreams, children with special needs (intellectual or physical disabilities) have the opportunity to play baseball in an organized league; to wear a uniform; have their names announced; participate in the National Anthem before each game; and to be a player on an athletic team. Vancore said last year, the league had a total of 161 participants on the 10 teams, the biggest year to date. He anticipates there may be 200 participants this year.
Registration is ongoing and always free. In fact, everything is free at Field of Dreams — uniforms, equipment, concessions — due to the league’s generous business partners, sponsors and spectators that cover the $82.50 required to field a player for the season.
Volunteer buddies, at least one per special needs player, help with batting and rounding the bases. Some buddies are members of area youth or high school athletic teams who volunteer year after year. Vancore said last year seven former buddies who are now college students called him to ask if they could volunteer during their Spring Break — a testament to what Vancore said is the special experience of being a buddy.
Every Saturday for nine weeks, five games of two innings each that last approximately one hour and 10 minutes are played. All players have their name announced and everyone bats. Vancore said the league accommodates all types of special needs, from the nine blind children they had last year to those in wheelchairs and walkers. Coaches are mostly local ESE teachers and the children come from all over northeast Florida to participate in Field of Dreams.
Vancore said it’s important to recognize that what the league is doing is sustainable and scalable — and to that end, they are branching out to build a boundless playground on the other side of the fence at right center field. This playground will feature equipment specifically designed for the special needs student, such as a teeter totter that can accommodate a wheelchair and mechanically go up and down.
The total buildout of the playground, plus permanent ADA restrooms, a permanent concession stand and a community pavilion, is estimated to cost $550,000. Vancore said $160,000 has already been raised. The first major piece of playground equipment, along with ADA certified mulch, will be installed sometime during the upcoming season, most likely in March. Although the Field of Dreams is locked when not in use, in order to protect the investment of the specialty turf field, the playground will be all access and open for use by all children.
For more information about Field of Dreams or to register, visit www.fodbaseball.com or visit the league’s Facebook page, “FieldofDreamsBaseballStJohns.” Donations for the boundless playground may be made at the league’s GoFundMe account utilizing keyword: boundlessplaygroundsjc.
Photo courtesy Stephanie Triay