ABSECON — It was an afternoon of baseball and good cheer as the South Jersey Field of Dreams kicked off its fall season this past weekend.
The league for physically and cognitively impaired children celebrated its 15th year Saturday at the field, which was specially constructed at Dr. Jonathan Pitney Recreation Park to allow the children to experience the joy of America’s national pastime.
Kids were all smiles as they hit balls off tees, while local high school students helped them around the bases as cheerleaders from Holy Spirit High School cheered them on.
Chuck Dhyne, games director at Field of Dreams, co-founded the league in 2003 with Barry Hackett, Larry McCarty, John Glassey and Jeff Hayden. He said he has seen high school athletes come back year after year to volunteer on weekends for both the spring and fall leagues.
“They get as much out of it as our kids do playing the game, and that’s really nice to see,” he said. “It’s great. They continue to call us to come back the following years and we keep adding additional groups. Most high schools in the area participate.”
The league features 14 teams. Two teams are for ages 6 to 9, four are for ages 10 to 14 and eight are for ages 14 and older. The fall league will last four weekends (the spring lasts eight).
Dhyne said about 180 players will participate in the fall league over the four-week span.
Each year, the league has added more to the location. What started as a dirt infield and backstop now has multiple pavilions, a merchandise stand, concessions stand, courtyard and an outfield fence filled with posters of local sponsors.
In 2012, with help from fundraising and a $25,000 donation from Ronald McDonald House Charities, Field of Dreams was upgraded with a state-of-the-art turf field.
That type of fundraising and donations are necessary for the field to continue being such a success. Dhyne said neither he, nor other board members and coaches are paid. There is no cost for players and their families to participate. Dhyne said families don’t even have to pay for concessions on game days.
Dhyne said he enjoys seeing parents watch their children being able to participate in a group activity such as baseball.
“It may be the first time their kids play a team sport,” he said. “They can sit in the stands and watch their kids play a team sport, but they can also network with each other to find out about other programs, and their kids start making friendships on their team.”
Mike Miller, of Galloway Township, coaches the league’s Orioles team. He’s been coaching for the league for 12 years and said he’s seen some kids he coached go off to college.
Miller said the kids get more comfortable with each week.
“The first week everyone is getting used to it, they’re hitting off the tee. By the second week they’re hitting off the pitcher. By the last week they don’t want anyone to help them,” Miller said. “It’s always great to see the confidence they begin to have, and they make a lot of friends along the way.”