The Lake Zurich Baseball and Softball Association has had only a few practices so far for its new Buddy Baseball program, but Commissioner Andy Cox has already seen some positive results.
"The players are all smiling," Cox said of the special needs players signed up for Buddy Baseball, known as the Challenger Division.
"But the buddies are really getting the most out of it, I think. They are just so patient and helpful and energetic with these kids."
In Buddy Baseball, children with special needs are paired on the field with volunteer buddies who can assist them while playing.
The LZBSA will host its first Buddy Baseball game at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 18, at Staples Park, Red Bridge and Farm Bridge roads in Lake Zurich. Subsequent games will be at 4 p.m. Sundays through the end of June.
"The buddies' No. 1 responsibility is to keep the players from getting hurt," Cox said. The buddies, for example, will assist players while batting or help with catching and throwing, he explained. "They will hang together."
Cox said he got the idea to start a Challenger Division from his brother, whose children served as buddies in a similar program in California.
"I said, 'This has to be something we should be providing,'" he said. "Baseball should be for everybody."
The LZBSA reached out to special education directors at school districts in Lake Zurich, Barrington, Palatine and Wauconda, looking for potential players.
In all, the inaugural season will start with 40 players ages 4-18, Cox said. The players have a variety of special needs, including Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy, he added.
The LZBSA also sought out buddies from within its own organization and in area schools. Seventy people ages 11 and older volunteered. As a result, the Challenger Division will have four teams with at least 18 buddies each.
The teams will play against each other, Cox said.
"We're hoping to play actual games," he said. "We're pretty excited about it. It's pretty cool."
Allen Katz, who oversees the Buffalo Grove Recreational Association's Buddy Baseball program, has seen the program's benefits firsthand. His son, who has Down syndrome, started playing Buddy Baseball in 1995.
"He thoroughly loves it," Katz said. "He has a great relationship with his teammates. He has a great time."
Buffalo Grove's Buddy Baseball program is in its 20th season, Katz said. There are junior teams for ages 6-16 and senior teams for ages 17 and older, with 70 players total. There are also about 200 buddies, Katz said.
"It's a very positive program," he said. "The crux of the league is having disabled children and adults play baseball and a non-disabled person plays with them.
"It's also a social activity," he said, noting it gives the players a chance to "have some relationships with someone who's not disabled. It's a win-win situation for everybody."
Maddy Boutros, a senior at Stevenson High School, has been a buddy with Buffalo Grove's program for four years. The Long Grove resident has found the experience to be a rewarding one.
"What I enjoy most is seeing how happy all the players are to be there," Boutros said. "Sure, they can't hit home runs every single time, but they are putting in their best effort. Out of all the players there, I never see one of them frowning. They all just appreciate what they have and never seem down on themselves. I admire them, each and every one of them."
Boutros said the most rewarding part of being a buddy is the friendships she's formed with the players over the years.
"We spend time together outside of the buddy baseball days. I value their friendships the most out of all the ones I have," she said. "Each and every one of them is truly remarkable and I'm blessed I have them in my life."
The Buffalo Grove teams play against Buddy Baseball teams from other local towns, including Libertyville, Mount Prospect, Prospect Heights and Bartlett. Junior games are at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays, while senior teams play at 6 p.m. Thursdays.
The teams also play Saturday mornings. All games are played at Twin Oaks Park, Aptakisic and Buffalo Grove roads, on a rubberized field built specifically for Buddy Baseball.
Cox said the LZBSA's Challenger Division is still accepting players and buddies. Both can register on the organization's website, lzbsa.org.