CLIFTON FATHER, SON FORM SPECIAL NEEDS BASEBALL TEAM
Clifton Journal - 4/14/2017
CLIFTON - "I just want to play ball," were the words Robert Marriello heard from his then 8-year-old son, Thomas, two years ago.
The Clifton youngster, a baseball fanatic who happens to be autistic, was not able to play his favorite sport in an organized league alongside his peers.
However, that changes later this month when a newly formed squad of Clifton special-needs athletes steps onto Albion Memorial Park's baseball diamond. Like his father, Thomas is a die-hard fan of the New York Mets. A Queens native, Marriello still has the programs from more than 30 games he attended at Shea Stadium during the franchise's magical 1986 championship season.
In 2015, the family spent weekends traveling to Garfield so Thomas could participate in a special needs baseball program.
The Garfield baseball team, like the Bloomfield soccer roster for special needs children, received an abundance of community support from residents and teenagers who played varsity sports at the respective high schools. Each time the Marriello family hopped back into their car to drive home from the Bergen County field, Marriello and his wife, Gabriella, looked at each other and said: "Why can't we do this back home?"
In Clifton, Mike Soccol has dedicated nearly three decades to the Challenger League, which he started with his son and daughter at Surgent Park. In addition to residents in wheelchairs, Soccol said he remembers some players who battled cancer, blindness and a young boy born with half a heart.
The Challenger League benefits individuals 6-21 years old who are interested in baseball, but Marriello said many players are adults or older than his 10-year-old son.
"A lot of our kids are higher functioning but younger," said Marriello. "A million years ago, when I was a teenager, we didn't have a special needs league like this. And, the population is getting bigger, not smaller."
Soccol offered Thomas a place on the Challengers roster but his father envisioned developing a league of their own and a friendly rivalry with the city's original special needs ballclub.
"I know there are hundreds of special needs kids in town between 5 and 12 years old who need to exercise and get out of the house," Marriello said. "And, there are therapeutic benefits beyond the game. You're developing social skills and camaraderie. It's an opportunity to be included because, as soon as they put on a uniform, it makes them a team and gives a sense of belonging."
He called Soccol a month ago to "pick his brain" for an hour about the process of building a special needs team.
Marriello, who coached his oldest son, Daniel, while a participant in the Clifton Midget League, approached the league's director with a minor request.
"He asked for a patch of grass at Albion Park so he could throw down some bases and teach special needs children the basics of the game," said Tyler Reed, CML's president. "I told him that's not how we do it. His kids would get the same respect as any other team."
The Richfield section resident said he was stunned by Reed's response.
"He told me if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right. He said 'you're getting Field #1 with the scoreboard.' I wanted to hug the guy," said Marriello, beaming. "The kids are going to think they're at Yankee Stadium."
The team's first game is slated for April 23 and many in the community, including Mayor James Anzaldi and the Clifton City Council, have been invited.
Reed said Marriello's team of 20 Clifton youths will officially join nearly 300 players from ages 5 to 12 who play in the 28-team league founded in 1953.
"I told him everything you do is going to be fully integrated because we're doing all of it together. So buckle up," Reed laughed. The new team will participate in the league's annual parade on April 22 as well as opening day festivities, picture day and the end-of-season picnic.
Every player will have an on-field shadow to ensure they are safe and in tune with the play on the field. A 12-year-old deaf girl will have a shadow who can communicate through sign language. For Thomas, his elder sibling will serve as a shadow. One parent or volunteer will be responsible for handling the bats.
For the first five weeks, the team will practice and play among themselves. However, toward the close of the season, organizers hope to hold a Clifton vs. Clifton game against the Challengers as well as home-away series versus Garfield and Bloomfield clubs.
"There won't be stats or standings," Marriello said. "This is just for the love of the game. If I can just help these kids a little bit, get them on a field for 10 Sundays and give them a game ball at the end, then that's a home run."
Marriello, a 20-year resident of Clifton, said team batters will begin hitting off a tee but did not rule out implementing live pitching later.
"Some of these kids have never even been on a baseball field before," said Marriello, adding that a few roster spots are still available. "But, now they have an activity once a week that's non-threatening where there's no bullying."
On Tuesday night, the city's newest Bambino members of the CML league assembled at Albion Memorial Park'sHenry "Hooks" Brower fieldhouse to don their uniforms for the first time.
"To see it makes you feel good as a human being, which can be hard to find these days," said Reed, adding that the league's longtime uniform vendor donated the jerseys at no cost. "It's going to be a good way to feel good about what I've done here the last eight years and set the league up for the next 60 years."
The team's name, P.R.A.I.S.E., is an abbreviation for Parents Requiring Action and Information for Special Education.