Yanks open doors to 'Beautiful People'
Club hosts organization for children with disabilities Thursday
NEW YORK -- When Mark Teixeira walked through the doors on Yankee Stadium's suite level Thursday carrying an invitation to come down to the field and play some ball, Joshua Decker was ready.
Teixeira couldn't have known it, but young Joshua has been studying the first baseman's movements for weeks, mimicking them in his driveway with the help of a walker. After practicing for his games with the "Beautiful People" organization, he was about to get his chance in the big leagues.
"Hey, Mark, I want to play first base," he said, his small voice filled with confidence.
The Yankees opened their doors for 8-year-old Joshua and his teammates on Thursday as HOPE Week continues, welcoming an organization that has built bridges between children with disabilities and their families in Orange County, N.Y.
By providing adaptive sports like baseball and soccer for children ages 5 to 21, Beautiful People has worked to give youth with special needs -- like Joshua, who has Spina Bifida and needs braces to walk -- the same chances as other children their age to take part in activities.
"This is all he's been talking about," said Joshua's sister, Ashley. "He's been practicing extra hard at home because he wants to impress the Yankees. It's so nice to get to see him out there. He told the doctor, 'I need a walker that will make me run faster.'"
The spark for the Beautiful People program came in 2005, when Peter Ladka was playing T-ball with his daughter, Brooke. Ladka is blessed with his own software development business and a family with two healthy children in Warwick, N.Y., but he felt a pull to do more.
"I'd been spending some time thinking about how my family and I could give back to the community," Ladka said. "I just got the idea that there have got to be families out there with kids that don't get to enjoy that opportunity that I was experiencing."
The program started with just one game in September 2006, and the reception was so outstanding, an entire spring season was scheduled for 2007.
Each player is paired with a "buddy," a mainstream youth or adult volunteer, who stays with the player when he or she hits, rounds the bases and fields the ball. About 50 percent of the children are struggling with autism and cerebral palsy, while others have Down syndrome and other challenges.
"Everybody wins, it's a non-competitive setting," said Janet Brunkhorst, the director of Beautiful People. "Everybody bats, everybody crosses home plate. The nice part about that is that it's a respite for the parents, because the parents are on the sidelines.
"Usually, in the day-to-day world, that's not the case. It's the opportunity to watch their kids participate in team sports."
Since the first official Beautiful People gathering, the game has grown from eight players, their families and 20 volunteers to over 60 players, their families and 65 volunteers.
And on the big diamond in the Bronx, Beautiful People now had the Yankees on their team, with players like A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Javier Vazquez offering their time and getting a chance to witness the miracles Ladka sees weekly.
"There are very small magical moments," Ladka said. "It's not the big things. You see a kid learn how to throw a baseball, or a kid ... actually hitting the ball out of the air. It's little miracles that happen and they're amazing. Talking about them now, I get emotional, and I've seen hundreds."
Each Yankee carried a personalized sign cheering on the kids -- "Way to go, Cody!" and "Amazing Adam!" were some of the selections -- while names and photographs were displayed in high definition on the big center-field video screen.
Yankee Stadium's whole experience was intact. Even Vinny Milano -- better known as "Bald Vinny" -- was there in right field, helping lead the roll call with some of his Bleacher Creatures.
The Beautiful People were the stars of the Stadium, joining the Yankees on the field for the National Anthem and watching the 11-5 win over the Tigers from a suite down the right-field line before heading back down to the diamond.
"It was astounding," Brunkhorst said. "The parents are as excited as the kids are. There was a dad down on the field right after the anthem and he was just shaking. He said, '[Derek] Jeter was standing right next to me!' It's a day for everybody."
Sixteen-year-old Daniel Fratto had a bonus experience. Unable to play in the league because of severe combined immune deficiency syndrome that requires him to wheel a portable oxygen tank, Fratto has found a role as the league's public address announcer.
He knocked his "audition" out of the park, as Yankee Stadium voice Paul Olden stepped aside to allow Fratto to announce the Bombers in the home half of the fourth inning. The first batter Fratto introduced was Jeter, and the Yankees rallied to score two runs with Fratto behind the microphone.
"He was outstanding," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I told him, 'You've got a bright future, young man.' HOPE Week is such a great thing. These kids are such an inspiration."
After the final pitches were thrown and the last batter reached base, the Yankees treated the Beautiful People to a barbecue down the right-field line, munching on chicken fingers, wings and pizza. A picnic on the field at Yankee Stadium seemed a perfect ending to a day that will never be forgotten.
"Today has been remarkable," Ladka said. "I think everybody that comes here realizes that they are participating in a once-in-a-lifetime event for them. The Yankees' hospitality and generosity has been unbelievable. We've just been really grateful."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.