Recently, a reader thanked me for choosing to walk down the "road less traveled" in my pursuit of presenting sports stories about the "good guys".
It meant as much to me as any compliment I could possibly receive as it made me feel as though my quest to show the goodness of sports is being noticed and recognized.
However, I took it not as an accolade about my writing skills as much as an acknowledgement that the high road still exists in sports despite this oft-crazy world that surrounds us.
I met one such blazer of the high road at a recent baseball game for the Lowell Spinners, the Class A Affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. It's amazing how God often places stories right before me. Stories that are aching to be told without my even knowing that they are there.
I had scored Standing Room Only tickets to the Spinners game as they took on the vaunted Batavia Muckdogs (where else, but Minor League ball?). That in itself was exciting enough for me. Such is the life of the rookie journalist.
As the game got under way I spied a group of about 25 special needs individuals who filled out most of the top portion of section 113. The group, which seemed to range in age from about 18 to 50, had caught my attention as they took the field with the players at the start of the game.
As each player was announced they were accompanied to their positions with their personal chaperons, who I would later find out were athletes with special needs from the Burlington, MA recreational softball league.
As much as they had captured my attention as they jogged to each position, they had me for keeps when they danced the "Cotton Eyed Joe" during the seventh inning stretch. No, I wasn't laughing at them, I was simply laughing with them.
I watched my friends cheer with every pitch and yell loudly with every swing and a miss. The score didn't matter much to them. They thoroughly enjoyed every pitch, every hit, every out. How I wish life's score board didn't matter to the rest of us, I thought.
I turned to the man standing next to me, who I later found out was Coach Mark Landers. I shook my head as I watched the group of special fans and said, "Until you walk a mile in another man's cleats, huh?"
"We sometimes forget how lucky we all have it," he said.
I soon learned that Landers, is not only the coach of this group of softball heroes, but is the older brother of one of the players, Jenny, who he affectionately refers to as "Jendo."
Landers and the athletes, along with a handful of family members, were taking in the Spinners game that night as a special treat, instead of their weekly trip to the movies.
Landers coaches the Burlington Pride (their self-anointed and unofficial team name) as they scrimmage each week against "special" teams from the Massachusetts towns of Natick, Reading and a local girls youth team. He has coached Jendo and the other athletes since 2004, after a friend told him about the position.
"A friend of mine saw an ad in the paper. Turns out my family knows the individual who was hiring and he contacted me" explains Landers, who is Vice President at Marsh US Consumer in Burlington MA, when not coaching the squad. "I told him I would try it for a year. That was five years ago."
The league is run by the Burlington Parks and Recreation Department and sponsored by the Rotary Club of Burlington.
"They are more of a partner than a sponsor," explained Landers. "We rely on the Rotary to buy our hats and shirts and to fund our annual trip to UMass and the Rec department supplies us with whatever else we need."
"In fact, two of the Rotary members, John Tuccinardi and Lloyd Rosenberg coach year round. Their commitment as Rotarians is for only eight weeks in the summer, but they have made this a year round commitment."
The players, who come from eight different Massachusetts communities, practice and scrimmage all season long leading up to an annual tournament at UMass. There the team takes on squads from Milford, Brookline, and Scituate, MA. The players don't care about the score, in fact, no one even keeps track. Scores are kept, however, during their annual jaunt to UMass.
"The team really looks forward to the weekend at UMass. It is a three-day event. Friday night is check-in and opening ceremony just like the Olympics. Saturday they play two games and then they have a dinner dance."
"Sunday they play two more games and then we head home. We stop at McDonald's for lunch and we sleep in the dorms, which the athletes get a real kick out of."
Landers explained that the quality of play ranges from some very good athletes to beginners. In fact, all of them are Special Olympians as softball is an Official Special Olympics Event. Jendo does Equestrian and went to the World Games in Connecticut in 1996.
"Some have limited ability, but still try and have a lot of fun."
Though he loves each and every athlete on the team, Landers' personal MVP is his little sister, Jendo. That is clear the way the two of them interacted through out the Spinners event. Jendo is aged 34 and is the youngest of eight children. She is the reason that Landers is involved as deeply as he is. It's clear that the love between brother and sister goes much further than their time spent together on the diamond.
"She has a big heart and never says a bad word about anyone. She uses the computer and texts very well. And is she funny."
Jendo has been involved in the Special Olympics for over 22 years, rides a horse and competes at Iron Stone Farm in Andover, MA. She also has 16 nieces and nephews and awaits the birth of Rylee Theresa, Mark and his wife, Michelle's first child, who is due in November.
"She can't wait," Landers told me.
"I reminded Jendo that she agreed to change diapers. But only if it was a girl she told us. Then she said, 'The Godmother can not do it all'."
When not playing softball, many of the athletes hold down regular jobs in their local communities at places like Roche Brothers, Papa Gino's, Westford Rehab, CVS. One of the athletes, Donovan, even lives on his own.
But Landers admits that if most of the team members had their choice they'd spend every waking hour on the softball diamond. I asked Landers about some of his warmest moments as they coach of the Burlington Pride. He got a little choked up but shared a few.
"There are so many. I guess winning the gold medal two years ago, and watching Kevin pitch for the first time in a game. He gave up a dinger and did not like it."
"There was Larry scoring his first and only run and seeing Kyle, who is legally blind getting a hit."
He continued, "And Jill and Jenny making put outs. It may not seem like much, but it was a tremendous accomplishment. Of course, at UMass the dorms and breakfast and dinner time are just lots of fun.
As we continued our chat, Kevin, walked by and gave Coach Landers a high five. The two of them exchanged jokes and Kevin went on his way. Landers shook his head and smiled and went on a ten minute recount of Kevin stories, each seemingly funnier than the one before.
"He's quite a character. Kevin keeps us entertained during the weekend. He is a very funny individual. He dates Stephanie, who is 16 years his junior.
"The first year at UMass he got mad at breakfast and said he was going to play for another team. I said go ahead. He went up at a 14-yr old volunteer and told her he needed to be traded. The look on her face was priceless. Then he went to a coach and asked to play for them.
"When we play the girls team he is always sweet talking them. We go to Applebee's for dinner on Friday and Kevin orders chicken fingers. It comes with Cole Slaw, which he says he loves, but I noticed he is not eating it. Kevin said, 'It gives me diarreha'. We took it away from him.
"The first year there I was ready to kill him. We get to UMass and he has four bags for a two night stay. One of the tall suitcases on wheels contains two cases of 20 oz Diet Pepsi's."
"On the home run he gave up, we asked him what he thought of the home run and he gave us the middle finger. He loves to play and watching him run with his little legs holding up his shorts is priceless. I really could go on and on with him."
Landers continued to over see his squad, but occasionally turned his attention to his wife and his seventy-five year old Mom who he is also the primary care giver for.
"She loves to come to the games, too. She loves watching Jendo play."
"We are fortunate that more and more parents help out. When I first started there was zero parental involvement. In fact, one uncle did nothing but heckle me at first. Now, he's a coach and is involved with his niece and nephew."
"In fact, I couldn't do much of what we do without the help of the parents. Each week we try to take the group to a play or the movies or to do arts and crafts and to dinner. Lydia Brown, who runs the Friday night and Saturday programs the athletes attend, is truly fantastic."
"She organizes all the food, transportation, and uniforms for our trip to UMass. She's also a parent to two of the athletes, Jill and Robert and the mother of my heckler friend. It's a real family affair."
"To be honest though, there is still not as much family involvement as I'd like, including my own extended family which is large. I just wish more family, mine included, would attend".
As the game came to a close with the final score being something to something, I asked Landers what the average fan can do to support the Burlington Pride.
"Donate money and come cheer on the athletes."
"I have been involved in Special Olympics/Special Needs programs since 1988. My Dad asked me to come to one of Jenny's practices. He said two hours a week will not kill you. He was right. It had a profound affect on me."
"If you think you have struggles", he added once again a bit choked up. "Just come to a Special Olympic event. That is what I always tell myself and others."
"Until you walk a mile in another man's cleats, huh?"
"We sometimes forget how lucky we all have it."
Todd Civin is a freelance writer for Bleacher Report, Seamheads and Boston Sports Then and Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for hire or comment. He is also a supporter of A Glove of Their Own, the award winning children's story that teaches paying it forward through baseball.
Please visit the site at www.agloveoftheirown.com and purchase the book under toady's donor code CVH113 Covenant House Foundation as $3.00 from each book sold will be donated to that wonderful charity, while an additional .30 will be used to purchase sporting equipment for underprivileged children.
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