Special needs children get game in spotlight
All-Star festivities kick off with game at Angel Stadium
ANAHEIM -- Lucas Walden singled, and with the help of Giants mascot Lou Seal, made his way all around the bases at Angel Stadium.
Walden, an 11-year-old from Anaheim, has cerebral palsy and was able to play baseball Friday from a wheelchair. He and about 30 other youths with special needs played a one-inning game in left field during the Challenger-Champions Game, which featured local teams from the Little League Challenger and PONY Champions divisions.
In just four days, the best players in the Major Leagues will take the same field for the 81st All-Star Game.
"It's amazing. You can't ask for anything better," said John Walden, Lucas' father and coach of the East Anaheim American Little League squad. "When they find out they're going to go play at Angel Stadium, you see the smile on their faces, their eyes light up. Lucas has been working on knuckleball pitches, all kinds of stuff."
Bank of America, the official bank of Major League Baseball, provided more than 40 volunteers for the event, which was emceed by Rex Hudler. Hudler spent three of his 13 big league seasons with the Angels and was also a Halos' broadcaster. As the father of a boy with Down syndrome, he's been heavily involved with special needs children and he and his wife, Jennifer, formed the Team Up for Down Syndrome foundation.
Hudler introduced the lineups, signed autographs and talked about a cause that's close to his heart.
"I don't know if you could tell or not, but I'm almost hoarse now because I gave it up for the kids and had fun," Hudler said. "It was great to be able to get a microphone -- I know there's a lot of parents who would like to be where I was today, to be able to talk about their kids. For me it was unbridled joy, just like you saw on the field. The great thing about this is it's not about me, it's about Bank of America teaming up to help ... that's what it's all about, it's all about giving back."
About 100 fans watched from the field and the stands and players and their families were treated to dinner afterward. All players got to hit and run around the field with Bernie Brewer, of Milwaukee, and Sluggerrr the Lion, the Royals' mascot, in tow.
"We've been looking forward to it for three months," said Mario Medina, whose 11-year-old son Socrates plays third base for the Moreno Valley PONY Baseball and Softball League. "It's really nice for us, really fun."
One onlooker was Angels president Dennis Kuhl, who Hudler joked should be scouting some talent after the Angels couldn't score more than two runs in any of their past four games entering the weekend.
"I love this," Kuhl said. "I think they get the biggest thrill of putting on the uniform and being on the big league field. I can see the look on their faces. The opportunity to give these kids this kind of thrill, you can't buy that."
Earlier in the day, Bank of America made a $50,000 donation to the Angels Foundation and Little League Challenger Division of Orange County in support of the annual "Challenger Classic," which brings special needs youth back out to Angel Stadium for more action in November on a larger scale.
More than 250 Bank of America associates will combine to donate 1,200 hours of their time during the All-Star festivities as part of the company's Million Hour Challenge, a pledge for the company's 280,000 associates around the world to donate a combined 1 million volunteer hours by the end of 2010.
"We put out money through our foundation, to non-profits, to charities, to support the arts and education, homeless shelters," said Allen Staff, Bank of America senior vice president and regional executive based in Orange County. "All those, yes, are things we do. But we also put forth volunteer hours from our associates. It's in our DNA, in our culture. We're a part of the community."
For the Walden family, Angel Stadium has always been home. John used to come with his father and sit in $4 seats. And for all the families who participated Friday, the day gave a spotlight to those who often don't have one.
"It builds self esteem, it builds character, it also builds their confidence," Hudler said. "For them to be cheered for doesn't happen in society. Kids like that aren't cheered for. To hear their name in a big league park, that is worth the admission."
Evan Drellich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.