Young baseball players in blue jerseys and caps sat on the aluminum stands in the Saturday morning sun at Lincoln Woods Park in Florence. After a huddle in the infield that ended with the collective shout of “Team!” the players had just walked off the field of the season’s final game.
Parents, relatives and friends clapped and cheered as Coach Greg Ashcraft stood before the stands and called each player by name. Ashcraft tried to say a bit about the players, maybe how long they’d been in the league or how much they’d improved, as he presented trophies to celebrate a season well-played. Cameras snapped and players beamed as they shared their trophies with their fans.
The scene seemed familiar enough for this time of year. But each player on this team has special needs that might prevent him or her from playing on a traditional baseball team. So they came to play here — Bambino Buddy-Ball.
The faces. When I think of the Bambinos, I think of faces full of joy. Bright eyes and big smiles when players catch a ball or connect for a solid hit. I think of faces strong with determination. The intent and focus when players dart for first, kick up dirt as they round the bases, and bound onto home plate to punctuate their score.
This spring marked the fourth season in our area for Bambino Buddy-Ball, a division of Northern Kentucky Baseball. It was the fourth season to experience the excitement of America’s pastime and to learn what it means to belong to a team. The fourth season to play the game with joyful determination.
My daughter has played Buddy-Ball for two seasons, so I’ve watched a game or two. The faces of fellow fans are something to see too – full of excitement, pride and hope. All these great expressions on all these faces caused me to wonder about the league. What’s its past? What’s its future?
To find out, I talked with Ashcraft. One of the lucky people who turned his love of sports into his vocation, Ashcraft makes his living training and coaching youth athletes in the area. For NKB, Ashcraft is a utility player. He plays administrator, sitting on the organization’s board of directors and overseeing the Bambinos. He plays coach, guiding Bambino players during Saturday morning games. And he plays baseball dad, cheering on daughter Grace, one of the Bambinos.
Bambino Buddy-Ball gets its name from one of the many nicknames of legendary baseball player George Herman “Babe” Ruth. It was established in 2000 by the national Babe Ruth League, with which NKB is affiliated. The young Northern Kentucky division has been in a building phase. Word is spreading, the division is growing, and this season, Ashcraft said, 55 players wore the Bambino patch on their uniform.
It takes a community
Marketing is a key to growing the Buddy-Ball division, said Ashcraft, who came on board two years ago. Through his involvement in the community, Ashcraft spreads the word about the Bambinos in an effort to reach new players and find corporate support and sponsors. A Step Ahead Pediatric Therapy sponsors the Bambinos, helping NKB to offer Buddy-Ball at no cost to its players.
Ashcraft relies on a lot of people for help. “I couldn’t do it without volunteers,” he said.
Other NKB teams come out to the Bambino fields each week to help as buddies and coaches. The volunteers signed up with enthusiasm this season, Ashcraft said, noting that when he sent out a volunteer list with open spots, it got filled immediately. Each Saturday, 20 to 24 volunteers were needed.
A Saturday morning during the Buddy-Ball season is a family affair for the Ashcrafts. Along with Greg and 12-year-old Grace, daughter Hayley, 20, and son Grant, 10, put on their blue shirts and head out to the field. Hayley coaches the younger Bambinos with her dad, and Grant helps as a buddy. Wife Kym watches from the stands.
Baseball binds the family together, Hayley said. “We’re all going to be there, no matter what.”
For the Bambinos, “having fun is all that really matters.”
Hayley told me she’s worked a lot with children with special needs throughout her life, including volunteering with Special Olympics swimming. That work seemed a good fit for the former high school swimmer, but because she wasn’t a baseball player, she wasn’t so sure about coaching when she started last year. “My dad just kind of roped me into it,” she said.
She found herself at ease soon enough. She saw the energy the players had and how excited they were. “It changed my life,” she said. For the Bambinos, “having fun is all that really matters.”
Looking to the future, one particular challenge for the program is limited facilities. The Bambinos play on dirt fields, which can be uneven and difficult for players with walkers and wheelchairs or other mobility issues. There are other leagues for ballplayers with special needs, such as the Miracle League in Cincinnati, that play on synthetic turf. Ashcraft would like to see those kinds of fields on this side of the river for the growing special needs population in Northern Kentucky.
Along those lines, Ashcraft continues to appeal to the community and corporations for support. “We want to continue to make it grow,” he said. “We can make it successful here.”
A love of the game
It may be an odd question when we live in the Cincinnati Reds backyard, but I asked anyway: Why baseball?
“They feel like they’re a part of something,” Ashcraft said of the players. “The experience to get out on a field … and just have that moment to be in the limelight.” It’s an amazing experience, he said, and he hopes the players learn, that even more than winning, “it’s about going out there loving the game.”
In Bambino Buddy-Ball, everyone hits, everyone fields, no one sits out and no one gets out. The players might warm up and work on skills before being divided into teams to take turns at bat and in the field. This season the division played on two fields – one for younger players who hit off a tee, and one for older players hitting machine pitches and off a tee.
Bambinos range in age from 4 to 18, though exceptions may be made, and they are placed on teams according to their age and skills. Buddies help according to need. Some players want a buddy next to them at all times, even running the bases with them. Other players are more independent, but generally everyone gets paired with a buddy in the field. If parents aren’t sure which team is best for their children, Ashcraft evaluates their skills and places them where they will grow as players and have fun.
My daughter certainly enjoys being a Bambino. Anna, 17, said she feels proud and excited to play baseball, especially because she’s following in the footsteps of an older brother. “We get to catch and stuff and we bat,” she told me the morning of the season’s last game after I asked to interview her. “When I bat I have to try to hit it hard and quickly. Sometimes I miss and sometimes I don’t miss and I run to the bases when I hit.”
She also likes being on the field with the volunteers. “There was the Red Dragons that helped us,” she said. “I have a couple of people that are boys that run with me.”
Missie and Don Lunnemann appreciate the interaction with peers that their 12-year-old gets while playing Buddy-Ball. “Jake loves working with the other kids,” Missie said as she stood with her husband near the field before the game. The buddies benefit from the experience too, she said, because they get to know the players, see their abilities and talk baseball with them.
Jake has become more social over the past couple of years, Missie said, and Buddy-Ball has helped. Don agreed, adding, “Experiencing a typical athletic sport is very good for him as well.” The couple also praised Ashcraft. “I appreciate Greg’s dedication,” Don said.
Ashcraft champions baseball’s ability to instill confidence and increase independence. He works hard, he said, to encourage independence among the players and their parents. For some parents, this is the first time to turn their child over to someone else, to sit back and watch. For the players, baseball creates memories of accomplishment that they can rely on to bolster confidence in other areas of their lives, he said.
Ashcraft’s most memorable moments on the field swirl around the expressions on the players’ faces and the heart that they bring to the game. He takes joy in their joy when they hold and swing a bat by themselves, when they experience the success of hitting the ball. He enjoys watching them in the field, even when they’re playing in the dirt.
For all of us who love children, it’s an amazing privilege to watch a child grow. Ashcraft said he’s rewarded with that each week during baseball season. And then there’s the impact on the parents. Parents have told him, “I never knew my child could do that.” These are the home-run moments of the job.
As Saturday’s trophy presentation came to a close, Ashcraft encouraged the players to keep practicing and working hard. He told them to invite others they meet to come out to play with them in the spring. The players climbed down from the stands and prepared to leave the ballpark. No one seemed concerned about wins and losses, outs or hits. They just seemed happy to have had a chance to put on a uniform and play baseball.
Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat.” As for the players leaving the field on Saturday, they are all great Bambinos.
Find out more
Go to Northern Kentucky Baseball at nkbaseball.com for more information on its Bambino Buddy-Ball division or contact Greg Ashcraft at email@example.com.
Credit: Top photo by Susan Cline Photography.