Dreams came true at NYSEG Stadium in Binghamton on Saturday. The Rumble Ponies partnered with the Dave Clark Foundation to put on their fifth annual Disability Dream and Do event, changing the lives of 50 participants as well as the players and coaches.
The Dave Clark Foundation partners with professional baseball teams to put on camps for participants of all ages who have disabilities, intellectual or physical. This weekend, participants as young as two and as old as 40 years old, all with special needs, joined all the Rumble Ponies on the field for a day of baseball.
In short, Dave Clark is the only professional baseball player to ever play on crutches. After losing most of the use of his legs to polio when he was in infant, he didn’t let that stop him as he enjoyed a 10-year pitching career in the minor leagues.
A knuckleball pitcher, Clark went 30-15 in those ten years, posting a career 3.31 ERA in the Phillies and Pirates organizations. Pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns in 1975, he saved 20 games with a 3.57 ERA, earning the Fireman of the Year award.
After playing, coaching or scouting at every level, including the Major Leagues in Sweden, Clark started the foundation to eventually do what he is doing now. Many years ago, he was introduced to Doug Cornfield, who is now the Director of the Foundation and is in charge of organizing these camps.
“It’s a privilege to do what I do in organizing Disability Dream & Do (D3) camps,” Cornfield said. “Dave Clark and Dave Stevens are inspirations to not only the D3 participants, but to the parents, caregivers, volunteers, and the professional players and coaches. Dave Clark and Dave Stevens are two ‘one of a kind’ examples of how they did not let their limitations hold them back from extraordinary successes.”
Dave Stevens, pictured above with Mets pitcher Robert Gsellman, was a three-sport varsity athlete at the college level. He was a wrestler, football player, and baseball player – all without legs. A double amputee at birth, he even played minor league baseball for a short while where he at one point pinch-hit for Darryl Strawberry.
“Man, those guys are pretty incredible,” said outfielder Patrick Biondi. “Hearing them talk about their stories a little bit, everything that they’ve accomplished, it’s pretty crazy to think about and pretty inspiring.”
Stevens, a seven-time Emmy Award winner with ESPN, is an ambassador athlete for the Dave Clark Foundation. He not only talked to the players in the clubhouse before the event, he took batting practice with the team before their game later that night – a game they won 7-2.
The participants arrive at the camp between 9:15 and 9:45 where they are greeted by all the volunteers who are there that day as well as both Daves. At 9:45, Dave Clark and Dave Stevens go into the clubhouse to speak with the team. They not only tell them about the event and what they will be doing, but they also tell their stories.
“Their stories are really inspirational,” Ben Griset said. “I would have never guessed that they could have done what they’ve been able to do. It motivates everyone that hears their stories.”
After Dave and Dave are done speaking with the players, they go onto the field where there are stations set up. There is a hitting station, throwing, fielding, tee ball, and a target station. The participants are split into groups by age and go station to station, playing ball with the players that greet them.
“I thought today was amazing,” pitcher Cory Burns told me after the event. “It gives these kids an opportunity to come out and live the day as a big leaguer, to come out and be on a baseball field like this and participate with players. Seeing smiles on their faces and knowing that you made a real big day and made a day happy for them, that’s all we can ask for. Knowing that you’re making someone else’s day, that’s what it’s all about.”
After an hour of rotation through the stations, the entire camp splits into to groups, one going to left-center field and the other going to right-center. The Rumble Ponies split in two as well, forming two circles around makeshift bases. Once there, one of the players would pitch to a participant, and when they got a hit, they would circle the bases, high-fiving all the players who cheered them on.
“Just working with the kids, you know they don’t have the ability that we do but just going out there and seeing the smiles they have when they see us is just amazing, it’s a great feeling,” said Robert Gsellman who was in Binghamton rehabbing his hamstring. “They don’t have the best ability, but what they can do is very inspirational – it’s amazing.”
“It’s good to be a part of it,” said Rumble Ponies manager Luis Rojas. “It’s my first time doing an event like this and it’s just special, just to be a part of it. I thought the time was just too short, really you want to spend more time here having fun and just see the joy of the players performing with each one of the individuals. It’s fun and I wish we could do this again soon.”
“I think I have more fun than the kids that came here,” said pitcher Kelly Secrest. “It’s a great experience, you don’t know what to expect when you come out here but it went really well I thought. I had a great time.”
“Doing this camp, it puts things in perspective on how lucky I am and we are and it’s just a great experience seeing these people enjoy their day and I hope they remember it forever – I know I will.”
My brother Eli has Downs Syndrome, and while he wasn’t at the event, I could not help but picture him rounding the bases, high-fiving the players with an enormous smile on his face. Speaking with the players during and after the event, those smiles are what really stuck out to them.
“I think it’s a great event for everyone, not just the kids us as well, it gives us a way of appreciating everything everyday,” said catcher Tomas Nido. “It’s so special to see them have this much fun and makes our day even better.”
“It’s been fun, these kids come out and they’ve got a lot of energy,” said Nido’s battery-mate PJ Conlon. “It’s fun just being able to hang out with them and play some baseball. It seems like they’re all having a really good time so I was happy to be able to come out and do this. It puts things into perspective. The things that some people and some families go through, the adversities that they have to deal with, it puts your own problems into perspective, makes you appreciate things a little bit more.”
“It’s awesome,” said pitcher Blake Beaven. “Any time you get to come out here and have fun with these kids, especially the parents too, it’s a good getaway for everybody from a normal lifestyle and what you’re used to on a normal daily routine and do something a little different.”
Pitcher Mickey Jannis is a knuckleballer, same as Clark. Jannis also wears number four, the same number Clark wore for most of his minor league career. During lunch after the event was over, Clark took Jannis aside and they talked for almost a half hour about knuckleballs, the event, and life.
“It makes you appreciate what we have and what we’re able to do every day,” Jannis said. “I know most of these people here and these kids are baseball fans so being able to go out there and play and put on a show for them every day, it makes you appreciate it and makes you want it a little bit more.”
This is the fifth year the Dave Clark foundation has had an event with the Mets Double-A affiliate. Earlier this year they also had camps with the Ft. Meyers Miracle, Rochester Red Wings, and Hudson Valley Renegades.
Being at this event was truly life-changing – for the participants, their parents, the volunteers, the players, the coaches and myself. It was a day full of miracles, with parents coming up to me saying, “I didn’t know my child could do that!”
These camps are free for participants, who also receive a free hat, shirt and lunch. The Foundation wants to put on many, many more camps but can not until they get more funding. If you would like to support the Dave Clark Foundation and perhaps bring a camp to a minor league stadium near you, you can learn more, volunteer, or make a donation at d3day.com.
You can also show support by following them on Twitter @D3DreamAndDo.