Special-needs kids get a turn at bat

Sammy Sanc­hez par­ti­cip­ates in the base­ball clin­ic for chil­dren with dis­ab­il­it­ies at Slug­gers­ville, or­gan­ized by the Blue Sox. Loc­al high school vo­lun­teers also helped some kids swing base­ball bats for the first time. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

Billy Kil­lian lost his an­onym­ity forever on April 20, 2004.

On that night, the off-duty Phil­adelphia po­lice of­ficer was shop­ping at his loc­al con­veni­ence store when an armed rob­ber burst in­to the place and held up the cash­ier. Kil­lian was also pack­ing heat that night. He charged to the front of the store, leapt over a counter and ar­res­ted the stunned ban­dit on the spot.

A video sur­veil­lance cam­era filmed the whole epis­ode. Someone pos­ted the 52-second clip on You­Tube.com in Oc­to­ber 2007. Since then, more than 161,000 people have watched it.

The film un­veils a dom­in­ant ele­ment of Kil­lian’s char­ac­ter, a trait that per­meates every com­pon­ent of his daily life. The 7th dis­trict patrol cop is a base­ball fan­at­ic, as evid­enced by the bright red Phil­lies cap he wore throughout that fate­ful 7-El­ev­en vis­it nine years ago.

About four years ago, Kil­lian ful­filled a long­time dream by co-found­ing a base­ball team of his po­lice de­part­ment col­leagues. The Phil­adelphia Blue Sox now com­pete in the Na­tion­al Po­lice and Fire Base­ball Con­gress. On the side, they play ex­hib­i­tion games to raise money for char­ity.

Last month, Kil­lian and his co­horts spent a Sat­urday shar­ing their pas­sion with dozens of young people who might oth­er­wise nev­er have the chance to swing a bat, throw a pitch or field a ground­er. They or­gan­ized a base­ball clin­ic for spe­cial-needs chil­dren at the Slug­gers­ville in­door train­ing fa­cil­ity.

“It feels good to help kids who can’t play in an or­gan­ized set­ting and give them ex­per­i­ences that we all take for gran­ted,” said Kil­lian, whose Blue Sox will play the NY/NJ Port Au­thor­ity Po­lice this Sat­urday at Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School at 11 a.m.

About 50 young people ran­ging in age from 2 to 26 showed up for the April 13 clin­ic, which the team pub­li­cized through so­cial me­dia and word-of-mouth. Some have men­tal chal­lenges like aut­ism or Down syn­drome, while oth­ers have phys­ic­al chal­lenges, such as spina bi­fida. Op­por­tun­it­ies for kids and young adults like these are rare when it comes to Amer­ica’s pas­time.

“A lot of times, our kids don’t have something to do,” said Cyndi Hinchey, founder of the Holy Ter­rors Stars, a North­east-based sports pro­gram for spe­cial-needs chil­dren. She is the moth­er of two aut­ist­ic sons, Danny, 11, and Tommy, 13.

“This is a place where the kids can be com­fort­able, be safe and have fun,” Hinchey said. 

The clin­ic was a far-reach­ing com­munity ef­fort. Slug­gers­ville opened the doors to its 22,000-square-foot train­ing cen­ter at 9490 Bluegrass Road. A group of North­east nat­ives, in­clud­ing Joe Brown, Jim Mort, Joe Doyle and Nick Capecci, opened the fa­cil­ity last Septem­ber. Brown de­scribes it as the only in­door base­ball cen­ter of its kind in the city. The con­ver­ted ware­house also fea­tures a con­ces­sion stand, game room, party room and re­strooms.

“We’ve been packed all winter. Base­ball is boom­ing, es­pe­cially in North­east Philly,” Brown said.

It’s also big in South Philly. That’s where most of the kids on the Ss. John Neu­mann and Maria Gor­etti High School base­ball team live. They provided much of the hands-on in­struc­tion for the clin­ic un­der the dir­ec­tion of their head coach Mike Zolk. A Park­wood res­id­ent, Zolk also serves as the head train­er at Slug­gers­ville and the man­ager of the Blue Sox.

“Billy ap­proached us [about the clin­ic] and asked us if we were in­ter­ested, and I thought it was a great idea,” Zolk said. “That’s part of the reas­on I came on board [as Blue Sox man­ager]. I love this stuff. I set up nine sta­tions, and each is a spe­cif­ic drill. We’re show­ing them all the ba­sics.”

State Rep. John Sabat­ina helped fund the pro­gram, which in­cluded lunch for the play­ers, free T-shirts and a home run derby. It re­minded him of his own brief base­ball ca­reer.

“I was pretty good ac­tu­ally, but I hit a slump dur­ing [high school] try-outs,” Sabat­ina said. “I didn’t make varsity as a sopho­more. But I was an all-star at Rhawn­hurst for a couple of years.”

Busi­ness sup­port­ers in­cluded Faulkner Hy­undai, Ace Pub­lic Ad­justers and Philly Sur­round Sound. The kids and their fam­il­ies ap­pre­ci­ated every bit of it, in­clud­ing Kira Liples of Doylestown and her son, Ciarlo, 2 1/2, who has spina bi­fida.

“He has a brace and a walk­er. He’s hav­ing a blast,” Liples said.

Neu­mann-Gor­etti ju­ni­or Charlie Jerla of South Philly is a ma­jor col­lege base­ball pro­spect. He brought his 19-year-old cous­in, Kev­in Dal­in, who has Down syn­drome.

“[Charlie] was very in­ter­ested when he heard about this pro­gram,” Jerla’s mom, Kate, said. “He wanted to bring Kev­in be­cause they are very close and con­nec­ted through base­ball. Kev­in loves Ry­an Howard and he knows everything about the Phil­lies.”

“[Kev­in] says he’s the an­noun­cer for the Phil­lies,” Charlie Jerla said. “He thinks he’s the next Harry Kalas.” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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