While many baseball fans will get wrapped up in the allure of Evan Longoria playing next to Derek Jeter on the left side of the infield or Hanley Ramirez swinging for the fences in the Home Run Derby, it is former Major Leaguer and longtime Angels broadcaster Rex Hudler who is really going beyond baseball at the 2010 All-Star game by highlighting a cause close to his own heart.
The allure of home field advantage, dream lineups, and majestic blasts over the terraced bullpens in the outfield may help craft this week's headlines, but Hudler is in Los Angeles promoting volunteerism and celebrating some very special all-stars among us who don't receive the fanfare they deserve.
Hudler's first son Cade was born with Down Syndrome 13 years ago, and it was the Wonder Dog who was on hand to emcee a heartwarming game between youngsters with special needs to kick off All-Star weekend in southern California on Friday.
Down syndrome is a genetic condition that affects one in 733 babies—approximately 4,000 children each year—and causes delays in a child's physical and mental development, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
Hudler, who spent 30 years playing and commentating on professional baseball, created the non-profit Team Up For Down Syndrome charity with his wife Jennifer in 1997, and he said he was thrilled to work with the MLB and Bank of America to support the Little League Challenger Division. The LLCD is a branch of Little League which enables children with physical and mental challenges to enjoy America's national pastime.
“To see the joy on my son's face, it just lit me up like a tree,” Hudler said, when talking about watching Cade play baseball. “I was so excited to see how much joy it brought him.
“It wasn't as structured as Little League, but they played. They went to the plate and the coach flipped a ball up there and they hit it and ran and they did the best they could to throw them out and catch the ball.”
For Hudler, who has three other children besides Cade, it was just one more reminder that youngsters with special needs can do just as many things as typical children.
"I had the typical dreams that a dad has of his kid becoming a big league player, but they [the doctors] told us three days after we had Cade that we had a child that had Down Syndrome.
“It didn't change the way that I felt at that moment because he was healthy and felt good and was a typical child as far as I knew, but then the reality set in that he did have Down Syndrome. We had to let go of the dreams we had for a typical child, and we had to change our dreams around a child with a disability.
“I have to tell you 13 years later that it can be tough and it can be challenging at times because he is a little more emotionally delayed, but he gives more joy, more unconditional love, than I ever imagined possible. We are blessed to have three other kids besides him, he not only enhances my life, but his other siblings' lives as well.”
With this year’s midsummer classic set in and around the Los Angeles area, Bank of America and the Little League Challenger Division have been providing an abundance of opportunities to highlight these inspirational athletes.
They donated more than 3,000 tickets to LLCD programs in Orange, Riverside, and Los Angeles counties and are hosting an exhibition game between two LLCD teams to mark the official opening of MLB All-Star FanFest.
“My son wanted to play baseball,” Hudler, 49, said. “They didn't have a Little League that could take care of him when he wanted to play baseball, but I found out that there was a league called Challenger League for children with disabilities. So we drove him across town and he played with other kids with disabilities.
“Challengers are starting to sprout up everywhere because kids with disabilities love to play baseball just like typical kids, and it's more exciting to watch them play because of the joy they have on their face.
"The typical kids in the league get to shadow and buddy up with the kids with disabilities and they help them play baseball. It gives the typical boy a perspective on life and how thankful they are to be able to walk, and catch a ball, and talk and it makes overall life better.”
But it's not just the children who learn valuable life lessons about living, playing, and working with people with disabilities. For Hudler, it meant literally re-writing his idea of parenthood and changing his perceptions of being a father.
“As a parent you always strive for patience,” he said. “That's one thing as human beings that a lot of us are short on, but I'm getting better. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm learning how to breathe two or three times before I react.
“Most males have a hard time when the kid spills the milk or breaks a pane of glass or drops a plate or something like that, but I'm learning how to take a few deep breaths and not say anything which is hard for me being a 'Type A' high-strung male like I am. So I'm learning a lot about patience but also about unconditional love, how to love people unconditionally.
“I'm learning about differences in people all the time. People are different, things are different, and my acceptance level is at a much greater spot, a much higher level of accepting differences, so that's a big impact my son has had on my life.”
With Hudler knowing first hand just what impact special needs children can have in families and societies, he said it was fantastic that a corporate sponsor such as Bank of America had teamed up with the charities to raise awareness of the condition.
This week alone, 275 Bank of America associates will devote 1,200 volunteer hours to community projects—including a series of Little League Challenger programs—as part of their goal to donate one million hours in 2010
Bank of America staff also helped baseball fans attending the MLB All-Star FanFest on Friday discover local volunteer opportunities. Everyone who visited their booth and committed to donate their time was entered for a chance to win a pair of tickets to Tuesday's All-Star game.
Hudler, who played for six different teams including three years with the California Angels in the mid '90s, added, “They're not just writing a check. Bank of America is a great sponsor and they have their people out there in the community doing stuff and that's what we're excited about...getting some corporate sponsorship and raising awareness of these Challenger Leagues.
“Pick out something that is worthwhile to you. Maybe it's something in your family, maybe you want to get involved with the environment. By getting involved you can make the world a better place, and I really mean that.
“I'm loving giving back because I'm learning more about myself and I feel good about myself as a human being. It's about giving back, it's not about ourselves. If you want to grow as a person, reach out and do something for someone else.”