At first, many of those gathered at CHS Field in St. Paul on a recent July afternoon seemed a bit reserved.
Some participants sat silently in their wheelchairs or stood against the wall as if experiencing last-minute jitters. On the other side of a fence, players and coaches for the St. Paul Saints, the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, stood clustered in a group.
But within a few minutes, everybody was mingling out on the ball field. About 50 participants — ranging from kids to middle-aged adults, with various disabilities — divided into three groups to rotate among stations where they swung bats, ran bases, threw and caught balls. Saints players pitched, caught and ran alongside them, cheering them on.
"You got this!"
The hour-long event was organized by the Beautiful Lives Project. The nonprofit, co-founded in 2017 by disability consultant Bryce Weiler and Anthony Iacovone, owner of the New Britain (Conn.) Bees collegiate baseball team, arranges sports and other activities in which people with disabilities can participate, such as dancing, cheerleading and the visual arts. Participants practice alongside professional or college athletes.
Weiler, who is blind, was inspired to start Beautiful Lives after the University of Evansville basketball team let him join them on the bench during his college years in Indiana in the early 2010s. It was "as close as I could get to being able to experience college basketball," he said. "I was just grateful to be around it."
When Weiler got out of college, he wanted to "help people with disabilities be able to live their dreams."
Run as fast as you can
"What do you guys know about base running?" Saints defensive coach Tyler Smarslok asked the group at the base-running station.
"Run as fast as you can!" someone shouted.
"Exactly right!" Smarslok said.
For the next few minutes, participants took turns moving as fast as they could, whether on foot or wheels. They would touch a base set on the grass in the outfield, a Saints player running alongside and cheering them on.
Some, like Tasha Feigh of Plymouth, were experienced athletes. She plays softball in the Special Olympics and has competed at local, state and national levels in basketball, bowling, flag football, gymnastics, poly hockey, softball, swimming and track and field.
"I like doing these kinds of things," said Feigh, 26. "I had a lot of fun."
Ellen Maguire of Vadnais Heights also competed nationally in the Special Olympics as a gymnast while in high school.
"I also used to play floor hockey, tennis, soccer and softball," said Maguire, now 22.
The Minnesota State High School League sanctions some adapted sports — soccer, floor hockey, softball and bowling, made accessible for people with disabilities — as varsity sports, said her mother, Regina Maguire.
Six-year-old Leo St. Martin of Inver Grove Heights plays in Miracle League, a Little League for kids with disabilities.
"It's one of the only recreational things you can do with a child in a wheelchair," said his mother, Anne St. Martin. "It makes him feel" — she paused, forming air quotes — "I hate the word 'normal.' Able-bodied."
When Leo's turn came, he zipped across the grass in his blue wheelchair. Then it was time to play catch with one of the Saints.
"This is his dream," St. Martin said. "He'll play catch with his dad for hours in the yard."
Leo's parents have attached balls to ropes and tied them to tree branches in their yard so he can practice hitting as long as he'd like.
"He's gotten pretty good," St. Martin said.
Sometimes, she half-joked, she worries that passersby will see him and think he's being forced to hit the balls.
"I swear it's because we love him," she said, laughing.
The weirdness goes away
Next it was time to try batting. The Saints had set up a turtle, or portable batting cage, for participants to practice hitting balls thrown by a Saints pitcher.
Jacob Stankevitz of Orono was slightly reluctant at first. He'd spent much of the time laughing and playfully accusing people of being Green Bay Packers fans.
"It's OK to be a little nervous!" said his mother, Jenni Stankevitz. She turned to the baseball players. "Tell those guys to back up! Back up!"
And sure enough, Jacob smacked the ball into left field.
The Saints players met each effort with applause and cheers, fist bumps, high fives and low fives.
"You're locked in!"
Even the strikes got a "Good swing!"
Stankevitz, who is a special education teacher, shared a professional insight. Though the event is designed for people with disabilities to enjoy, the baseball players benefit too.
"I think that's the most awesome thing about these events — when people learn they're just like us, they're not weird or different, they're just people," she said.
"In the end, they're all just teasing each other, laughing at each other. The more people learn about disabilities, the more the weirdness goes away."
Derek Sharrer, the Saints' executive vice president and general manager, agreed that the players — "we have basically the Saints' whole roster here" — get something out of it, too.
"It's fulfilling, no question about it," he said. "It gives [the players] a chance to see that they can have an impact — even in just an hour."
Relief pitcher Evan Sisk agreed. "It makes our day," he said. "Hopefully it makes their day, too. Hopefully we could make a good memory for them."
When it was Leo's turn to bat, he rolled toward home plate with confidence.
"I've done this before," Leo said. "It's easy."
"That is a laser!"
"You are awesome!"
A few swings later, Leo wheeled out of the batting cage and onto the field.
"Give me a hundred bucks!" he said loudly.
Leo settled for some high and low fives. And then, holding a baseball someone had given him, he headed out to collect autographs.