Nine-year-old Timothy Fennen, of Somers Point, has multiple challenges that include Down Syndrome and diabetes.
But on a recent Friday night at the Field of Dreams in Absecon he was just a regular kid coming up to bat, swinging and connecting with the ball, and running joyfully to first base where he was met with a bunch of high-fives and a congratulatory pat from his dad, Tim.
"We've been practicing," his dad, Tim Fennen said. "When he enjoys something, he's good at it, and these guys do a great job."
"These guys" are a small group of men and hundreds of volunteers who have made the Field of Dreams baseball field in Absecon an annual tradition for hundreds of children with disabilities.
"I never thought it would get this big," said Barry Hackett, a primary founder of the field. "But our motto is that we're too dumb to know what we can't do."
It was 2002 when Hackett first approached Absecon City officials about the field. He and a core group that includes John Glassey, Larry McCarty and Chuck Dhyne had started Special Olympics in South Jersey 40 years ago and have made it their mission to give children with disabilities an athletic outlet. Hackett said the Field of Dreams idea came from wanting to do something for a grandson with cerebral palsy.
City officials embraced the concept, including the field in the new Dr. Jonathan Pitney Recreation Park. Unions helped with construction and what the group thought would take five years to complete was ready to open in about a year. Over the past decade other sponsors, including McDonalds, Comcast and Bayada Nurses have help fund the courtyard area and uniforms. The AmeriHealth Caritas Foundation is funding a handicapped-accessible playground next to the field.
The program has grown steadily and this year has 260 children on 14 teams who commute from 33 towns in six counties. The players have different types of challenges, but everyone gets to play.
Dhyne, of Absecon, sets up the schedule. As the number of players expanded, he added more teams and games are now played on Friday nights and most Sundays.
"We can do about two more teams, and then we'll have to add a third day," said Dhyne, who pitched an inning on opening night. "This is a great alternative for kids who would struggle in Little League. Here the kids can meet other kids and the parents can network. It's a chance for parents to watch their child play, and not have to participate or help them."
Parents can relax because of the hundreds of volunteers who attend each game, including members of sports teams from area high schools and Richard Stockton College, area businesses and individuals. Close to 1,000 people now come to help during the fall and spring seasons.
Each child is matched with a volunteer. The games have only a few rules - everyone gets two turns at bat and two turns in the field. There are no strikes, and every batter gets to keep swinging until they get a hit.
"Somehow it always ends up a tie score," Hackett, of Absecon, said with a smile.
McCarty, of Absecon is volunteers coordinator, keeping a schedule of when different groups will come.
"The volunteers' job is to encourage," he said. "I always tell them, our players will inspire you."
On opening night Jim Craine, of Galloway Township, sang the national anthem. Ben Petrovic of Atlantic County Harley Davidson in Galloway Township threw out the first pitch as about 15 members of the local Harley owners group staffed the refreshment booth.
"We always do opening day," he said "We love it. And we also do fund-raising at the store."
The group sells T-shirts and sweatshirts on site, and also holds fund-raising events to maintain the field. New astroturf was installed this year, along with a new 10-foot fence in the outfield called The Nightmare. Any player who hits a home run over the Nightmare gets a special T-shirt. Some of the older players, who have been coming for years, just might do it, Hackett said. There are now two teams who are more advanced and play a slightly more traditional game with strikeouts.
Glassey, of Egg Harbor Township, said they always knew there was a large community of handicapped athletes who could benefit from the field, but he is a bit amazed at how much it has grown and been supported by the community. Fundraising has a year-round season, and Glassey spends time talking about the field and its work to pretty much anyone willing to listen..
He said hidden secret of the field is that it has had as big an impact on the volunteers as it has had on players. Board member Joe Brown, of Smithville, takes photos to post on the team's web page. Julie Funk, of Longport, has volunteered for about three years and helps coach younger children. The Egg Harbor Township High School baseball team worked with the first two teams of players on opening night
"Once you come, you can't stop," said Funk who first came when her son volunteered.
Fran Northridge, of Ventnor, who handles public relations, got involved when her son needed a community service project.
"He's an electrical engineer now, but he still comes when he's here," she said. "I never left. This is a great vehicle to bring people together."
Parent Monique Gales, of Atlantic City, called the field a blessing. She said her son, Terrence, 10, loves to play, but doesn't get much opportunity.
"The kids really look forward to it," she said.
Organizers said they have been paid many times over in the smiles of the players.
"It's just the joy you see when they get a hit," McCarty said.
They group also organizes Hoops for All basketball in the winter. But the Field of Dreams holds a special place in their hearts.
"This is the crowning achievement of the 40 years we've worked with handicapped athletes," Glassey said.
"It's just something we love to do," Hackett said.
(Information on the Field of Dreams is available on the group's web site at www.southjerseyfieldofdreams.com)
Contact Diane D'Amico: