Special Olympics work inspiring for MLB stars

Contreras, Torres now global ambassadors for organization

December 3rd, 2020

NEW YORK -- In September, Cubs catcher and Yankees infielder were announced as the first MLB players to partner with Special Olympics as global ambassadors. As such, the two All-Stars have pledged to use their platforms to support the organization’s worldwide mission of ending discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities, primarily through inclusion in sports.

On Wednesday, in their first official activities as global ambassadors, Contreras and Torres met jointly, via Zoom, with Special Olympics athletes in their home country of Venezuela. They also interacted separately with Special Olympics athletes, parents, coaches and staff in Illinois and New York, the respective regions that will be the focus of their efforts in the U.S. Contreras and Torres, who both live in Florida during the offseason, will also be involved in Special Olympics initiatives in that state.

Founded in 1968, Special Olympics offers more than 30 Olympic-type sports and has six million athletes in more than 190 countries and territories. In a typical year, the organization hosts more than 100,000 games and competitions. In addition to sports initiatives, Special Olympics also offers programming focused on health, education, and leadership.

For Contreras, who has been involved with Special Olympics Illinois for some time now, the organization's efforts on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities are deeply personal: Growing up, he had a neighbor with Down syndrome, and he also has a cousin who was born with the condition.

“I think sports have the power to change the world, and they give a lot of people the chance to enjoy themselves,” Contreras said in Spanish on Wednesday. “We’re fighting for a more inclusive world.”

Contreras, 28, has grown close to one Special Olympics athlete: 13-year-old Daniel Rodriguez, who has Down syndrome and is non-verbal. Contreras first met Rodriguez several years ago during a visit to Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. The two played video games that day, and Contreras kept in touch with Rodriguez, hosting him at Wrigley Field and surprising the youngster at his school.

Through Special Olympics, Rodriguez competes in soccer and basketball and has also developed an interest in track and field. His mother, Nyvia Crespo, expressed gratitude for “the sense of normalcy that all these children that participate in Special Olympics receive.”

“It’s something that says, ‘I can do it, too,’” Crespo said, adding that her son’s relationship with Contreras has been “life-changing.”

“He has someone to look up to, to look forward to seeing whenever baseball comes on,” Crespo added. “One way or another, we know of him. Willson’s been very genuine with his friendship with Daniel.”

For Contreras, the relationship with Rodriguez and his family have been just as rewarding.

“It’s one of the best things that has happened in my life,” Contreras said.

While Contreras continues his partnership with Special Olympics Illinois, Torres, who will turn 24 on Dec. 13, will join forces with Special Olympics New York. Specifically, he’ll support the City Hawks, a Special Olympics training program founded in 2006 by physical education teacher Joseph Stewart at P.S. M721 in Lower Manhattan, which services children in grades 6 through 12 with cognitive and developmental disabilities. City Hawks athletes participate in several sports, including softball.

For Torres, who received the Thurman Munson Award earlier this year for his outreach to Spanish-speaking students in the New York City public school system who are learning English, his involvement with Special Olympics represents a continuation of his commitment to the community.

“When I found out I was going to be a global ambassador, it was a great honor for me,” Torres said in Spanish. “It’s going to help us grow as people and to show the world that change is possible.”

Stewart says that giving his students the opportunity to compete through Special Olympics has resulted in a notable improvement in attendance at his school. For him, Torres’ commitment to the Special Olympics movement is a validation of his life work and of the efforts of his athletes, many of whom, he says, are Yankees’ fans.

“For him to see the value in what we’re doing and want to be involved in his movement, it’s a motivator for coaches like me to see that what we see is getting the spotlight now, where someone as noteworthy as Gleyber Torres would want to be part of it,” Stewart said.

As bilingual stars, Contreras and Torres will also promote the Special Olympics mission in Latin America and specifically, their native Venezuela, which is a source of pride for both.

“That means a lot to us, because we know where we come from,” Contreras said.