Special Athletes Ready for Spring Training

To view photos of 2009 Spring Training Day, visit the photo gallery by clicking on the following link: http://photos.suburbanonesports.com/

BENSALEM – Ryan Farrell could not contain his enthusiasm.
“I’m ready for Spring Training, baby – just like Ryan Howard and the Phillies,” he said, smiling as he high fived everyone in his path.
On Sunday, Farrell had his Spring Training Day, and for all the enjoyment he received, he might as well have been playing for the Phillies.
“He thinks he’s in Florida playing with Ryan Howard,” said Ryan’s father, Kevin Farrell.  
Farrell was one of more than 30 special needs athletes who participated in the 2009 Spring Training Day, sponsored by Athletes Helping Athletes and Raisa’s Ray of Hope. The event was held at Extra Innings in Bensalem with owner Mike Gospodarek donating the use of his indoor complex for the special day.
According to Ryan’s parents, he had this day circled on his calendar for a long, long time.
 “He started reminding us weeks ahead of time,” his dad said. “He was up by seven this morning, and he was dressed and ready to go.”
“He kept asking, ‘Is it time? Is it time?’” said his mother, Deb Farrell. “When we were driving over here, he said, ‘Are you sure you’re driving the right way?’
“He loves the social interaction, and just the ability to interact with the volunteers and the student-athletes who are helping – he enjoys it tremendously.”
Farrell attends Council Rock North High School where he serves as manager of the football team.
“To do things the typical kids can do – it’s nice they adapted this for them,” Deb Farrell said.
Five members of Council Rock North’s varsity baseball team – Kelly Adams, Scott Runzer, Ryan Maley, Ryan Venner and Alex Goldberg – as well as assistant coach Dan Toner were among those who volunteered their time on Sunday morning.
“They get to give back to their community,” Toner said. “I told them, ‘These kids want to play, and you’re going to have fun.’”
Adams, who plans to play baseball at West Virginia next year, is the owner of a fastball that has been clocked at 88 MPH. On Sunday, at his station in the batting cage, he was lobbing pitches underhand at a considerably slower speed, but he was enjoying it every bit as much.
“It’s a lot different, but I don’t mind,” Adams said. “You have to be a lot more patient.
“I like when they hit it and have a nice smile on their face. No one’s not hitting today.”
In the adjoining cage, a pitching machine is no match for the sweet left-handed swing of John Krol, who is ripping some laser shots all over the cage.
“Geez, that guy can hit,” said an amazed onlooker as Krol nailed a pitch off the wall.
Krol – who admits that hitting is his favorite part of the game - has been involved in Special Olympics for more than six years and won a gold medal with his baseball team. He only recently became involved with Athletes Helping Athletes.
“For John, it’s the ability to have him compete and have his self-esteem in sports because he is a very good athlete,” said his father, John Krol. “He was very excited about this.
“(These kids) are a very tight-knit group, and they all want each other to do well. They cheer for each other. They get a kick out of it when they hit the ball far and get the oohs and aahs. It’s almost the purity of sports, and it’s a great camaraderie for these guys and girls.”
Spring Training Day included hitting drills, fielding drills, pitching and catching and batting off a tee as well as other fun activities. Each athlete received a t-shirt and medal, and on this day everyone was a winner.
“It’s outstanding for the regular athletes to do this – the interaction is phenomenal, and the awareness is just fantastic,” John Krol said.
Talk to Ryan Vetter, who was part of the Rock North football team that also works with Athletes Helping Athletes, and it’s clear there’s nothing he’d rather be doing.
“It’s a good feeling to help out kids who aren’t as fortunate,” he said. “It makes me feel good when they hit it and have a smile.
“I just enjoy it. It’s a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.”
For the special needs athletes, it’s a unique privilege to have the opportunity to do things their counterparts do every day without a second thought.
“John has three brothers who are younger, and this makes him feel that he’s not any different and that he can do what they do,” said John’s mother, Joyce Krol. “John is aware of his differences, and sometimes he’d feel as if he wasn’t up to snuff if he was competing with regular athletes.
“When they’re working together side by side with them, I think it really builds that bridge that they’re one. He’s not feeling any different than them, and they’re working together so well.”
And that, according to Rick Leonetti of Athletes Helping Athletes, is the beauty of the day.
“I get chills watching the kids,” said Leonetti, who helped coordinate Sunday’s event. “They’re all superstars.
“Watching the parents, watching the volunteers – it’s just an absolutely tremendous feeling.”
Fun was in good supply everywhere you turned on Sunday as the players went from station to station with their group to work on drills.
As John Krol emerged from a successful stint in the batting cages, he began some serious negotiating.
“Do you want to try and get tickets right behind the Phillies dugout,” he asked his father.
“We’ll see,” his dad said.
John smiles as he heads to his next station. He’s optimistic, and on a day like Sunday, why wouldn’t he be.
“I love seeing how happy they are,” said Scott Runzer, who will be taking his baseball talents to West Chester next fall. “I play baseball every day, and I have fun. It’s nice to see them come in here and be able to do the same thing.”
And that’s what Spring Training Day 2009 was all about for 30 very special athletes.