If big, radiant smiles equaled runs, the scoreboard at Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers, would have shorted out from overuse on a recent Saturday morning.
With a park full of young, special needs ballplayers running around the diamond, the 2018 Bellevue Buddy Baseball game scored its biggest event yet. Paired with volunteers from Bellevue East and West high schools, along with several Storm Chasers players, 53 players took the field and showed off their skills — batting, hitting and fielding.
The event, in its second year at Werner and fifth year overall, makes kids with special needs feel like big league ballplayers.
After the national anthem, the announcer called out the player’s names and they ran down the freshly chalked foul lines along the base paths and were greeted with cheers at home plate. The kid’s names and pictures were displayed on the big screen above the left field stands, same as the pros.
The field, normally home to the Kansas City Royals’ Triple-A affiliate, seemed like the perfect place for the pint-sized players.
OPPD employee Allen Parette and his wife, Jean, created the Buddy Baseball concept.
Jean Parette had a co-worker whose child had Down syndrome, and the couple thought it would be great to team local high school players — the couple’s two sons played baseball at Bellevue East — with young special needs kids.
Allen Parette’s own family taught him at an early age about the importance of acceptance and inclusion.
“I grew up with two aunts in the panhandle who had autism,” Parette said. “They were so caring and friendly, and taught our family the meaning of acceptance and love for those with difficulties.”
Parette said the event serves two purposes: It teaches young people like his sons and their friends that many people go through life facing difficulties. Volunteering with the Buddy Baseball event teaches them the need to be caring toward and understanding of everyone. For the players, it’s a chance to have fun on the baseball diamond and learn more about the sport from some really good players.
After each player is announced, they step up to home plate and hit the ball and run the bases. Different stations — including one featuring water balloons — are set up in the outfield.
The players receive gift bags, T-shirts, ball caps and lunch. One of the volunteers, Terrance Gore, formerly of the Storm Chasers, even has a World Series ring. But regardless of their skills, the players and buddies all bond over the experience.
This year’s event was the biggest one yet in terms of players and volunteers, with more than 100 participating. Quite a difference from the first year, when they had 15 players and played on a Bellevue city field. Parette said the event just keeps growing.
“The smiles and warmth created by this event are amazing, and it provides invaluable life experiences for everybody involved,” Parette said.