Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Nationals Park is in Southwest. It is in Southeast. This version has been updated.
Since 2004, for one day a season, kids have had a chance to take over their local Major League ballparks for the National PLAY Campaign. The event gives children the chance to check out the dugouts, bull pens and fields while teaching them how to have a healthy and active lifestyle.
This year, the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society (PBATS), which sponsors the events, has partnered with The Arc — an organization that provides services and advocacy for people with disabilities — to include children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The Arc will have children at about half of the 30 parks in the country that host the free PLAY (Promoting a Lifetime of Activity for Youth) events. Nationals Park in the District recently hosted an event with about 70 kids, 12 of whom have disabilities.
Mary Lou Meccariello, the executive director for The Arc of D.C., was at the event and said she was thrilled at how seamlessly the children with disabilities were included in the activities. Their differences, she said, were a non-factor, and that’s as it should be.
“When you walked away, you had a feeling that it was warm and respectful, and a feeling that all of the kids were treated with dignity. All of them,” Meccariello said. “Children need that.”
So for 90 minutes on a recent Saturday morning, the group of children rotated through a series of stations at the stadium in Southeast, including talks on steroids and other drugs, lessons on the importance of exercise and diet, a question-and-answer session with Nationals pitchers Aaron Barrett and Tanner Roark, and throwing and catching clinics.
The event at Nationals Park usually includes a home run derby, but it was canceled this year because it had rained the night before and the grounds crew told head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz that he had to keep the kids off the field.
Kuntz ran a shuttle run in the bullpen, where he encouraged the kids to compete against themselves, rather than each other.
“The whole crux of the event is to get the kids off the couch,” Kuntz said.
That goes for the typically developing kids as well as the ones with disabilities, which is why PBATS is trying to have the children totally integrated at the events, doing all of the same activities side by side, said Neil Romano, senior adviser for PBATS.
“We think the young people without disabilities will learn as much from the kids with disabilities as they will from the rest of clinic,” Romano said. “We have to break some of these barriers down.”
PBATS started PLAY in 2004 as a way to combat childhood obesity and the uptick in diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, Romano said. The group keeps the clinics to about 50 to 200 boys and girls, most of them in middle and high school. And they intersperse the important talks about health with fun activities, from stretching like a pro to skill drills.
Hanging out in the dugout and seeing the eye-level view of the field that they’ve seen on television is always a hit with the kids, Romano said. They also get stoked about visiting the batting cage, the bullpen and the hitting and throwing tunnels under the stadium — particularly when some of their favorite players are down there working out.
Romano said the father of a young man who struggles with speech and language came up to him after a recent event in Baltimore to thank him. He told Romano that the minute his son walked on the field, he said, “TV,” because he recognized it from the games they had watched together.
“He was galloping all over the field, so happy to be running on the grass,” Romano said. “The father said, quite frankly, that it was the best day of his son’s life.”