DENVER -- Zach Lewis stepped up to the plate in his All-Star uniform. He tapped his spikes with his bat to shake any dirt loose on the indoor artificial turf field. He tapped the corners of the plate. Then he took one more moment to raise his bat and point to the right-field fences, calling his shot.
His hit may not have cleared the fence, but the smile on Zach’s face was a home run, a no-doubter right off the bat.
The Special Stars Game, held as part of All-Star Week, is nearly unique in being an event that everyone participating -- the players, the volunteers, the parents, the staff, and even special guests like Hall of Famer Andre Dawson -- has an incredibly positive, uplifting and moving experience.
Lewis was playing on a team of special needs youth athletes representing the National Sports Center for the Disabled, and they hosted a team from the Special Olympics. They played at Field of Dreams Park, part of Play Ball Park. Lewis scored a run in what ended up being a tie ballgame, and if there had been an award for the player enjoying themselves the most, Lewis would have shared the title in a 30-player tie.
“It’s touching,” said Dawson after the game. “This is America’s game. To have the opportunity to come out here and engage in physical activity is extraordinary.”
Dawson has been helping with the Special Olympics and the Miracle League for about 15 years, and clearly enjoyed helping each batter as they made their adjustments at the plate. His impact was immediate -- every time a player missed the ball or hit it foul, Dawson gave them a tip, often teaching them a finer point about their swing, and invariable getting immediate success with the next pitch.
“I tell them, ‘I'm confident that that you're going to hit it,’” Dawson said of his coaching from home plate. “A lot of them are a little bit timid at first, but once they get that first swing and they loosen up, they just enjoy it.”
Giving the kids that kind of enjoyment through the opportunity to play baseball and interact with some of the heroes of the game was a big part of what Jeremy Flug had in mind when he started Baseball Fantasy Camp for kids, a one-day clinic he started with support of the Rockies that has picked up an additional 16 Major League teams to work with special needs kids.
“I'm blessed to be able to fund it, but I can't think of any better place to put money,” Flug said. “I've got four grown boys, and with God's blessing, they're functioning, and I've been very lucky.”
Ed Quayle also counted himself as fortunate for being able to participate in an event like this with his son, Brian. They’ve been active in events with the NSCD for 10 years, primarily focused on skiing events in Colorado, but participating in All-Star Week was another level for the Quayles.
“This is a bigger experience,” Ed said. “It was really a journey to be able to come here and see all the activity.”
Ed and Brian participated as a duo, with Ed hustling Brian around the basepaths in his wheelchair. Brian looked as joyful as anyone as he came safely home to score.
Folks like Harvey Tokutau, with Boys & Girls Club of Greeley, also got to experience the reward of working with the Special Stars of the game. Volunteer demand was so high, Tokutau had to turn people down.
“They’re very excited,” Tokutau said. “This type of thing doesn't happen very often, especially in Denver.
“It is very special to see them go out there and help, and the camaraderie that they have with each other, and just having fun with the younger kids as well.”
Allie Brown is a Special Star who seemed to double as a mentor, telling jokes to Brian Quayle before the game then aggressively beating out an inside-the-park grand slam.
Beyond the joy shared by the youth athletes, Cory Chandler of Special Olympics Colorado may have best epitomized the spirt of the day as he recalled tearing up watching his athletes and volunteers.
“I’ve got the luckiest job in the world,” Chandler said. “Seeing kids that normally wouldn't get to play baseball. If you don't get a tear, then something’s wrong. They have so much joy. It's a blast, amazing. We had as much fun as the kids did!”