After hitting a bases-clearing grand slam, Hunter heads to first base with the help of Gabriella Hunter Smith during a game of Buddy Ball baseball Sunday at the Auburn Suburban Baseball and Softball Field Complex. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

A baseball game in Auburn on Sunday may have brought more happiness than any of the playoff games and championships played throughout the state during the past few weeks.

Instead of bringing joy, and a trophy, to only one team, Sunday’s Buddy Ball game at the Auburn Suburban Little League Baseball and Softball complex was filled with smiles, laughs and high-fives all around.

Buddy Ball, in its first season, pairs players with disabilities with at least one “buddy,” who assists the players with running the bases, fielding and hitting as well as providing encouragement.

A league almost started last summer, but it was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Auburn Suburban started Buddy Ball to give every kid the opportunity to play baseball.

“Lewiston Little League was going to do a program last year and we were going to jump on board and kind of just co-run it with them and then COVID happened,” Jessica Morin, an Auburn Suburban board member and lead organizer said. “This year when we were talking about it we were like, ‘Why can’t we do it?’ We jumped on board and went with it. We have kids from Lewiston, the Lisbon area, kids from Livermore, it’s open to everybody but we are just running it here.”

There are 22 players this season, and they range from ages 3-18. On Sunday, the league’s second game day, Dairy Queen and DNA Photography faced off for the second time on a picture-perfect morning.

The players try to hit pitches thrown by Morin or one of the buddies, or they hit off a tee. After making contact, they run to first base, or, in some cases, around all the bases for a home run. The games even have an announcer doing introductions, play-by-play and commentary.

For parents, such as Cassie Manson, the mother of 3-year-old Welles, Buddy Ball’s inclusion of players with disabilities is heartwarming. 

“As a mother, to see your child participate in that, I have two other sons participating in sports, and it’s such a proud moment, and the opportunities are less for Welles, so having a place to bring him and where he fits is just so huge as a parent,” Manson said. “Just to have the pictures and listen to the announcer — he was important. The opportunity was even greater for me as a mom to see that participation. It was a day he didn’t have to be different from everyone else, so it meant a lot for us.”

Addie Martin, 11, helps Sawyer round the bases Sunday during a game of Buddy Ball baseball at the Auburn Suburban Baseball and Softball Field Complex. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Welles had two buddies help him on Sunday. He was a crowd favorite, running to the bases, often taking detours, as the crowd, buddies and teammates cheered so loud that drivers of cars with windows down might have thought they were passing by a high school playoff game.

“It was pretty magical,” Cassie Manson said. “I enjoyed it very much, probably more than the kids did, I think.”

Manson started a non-profit organization more than a year ago called All is Welles that makes and sells hats, then donates the money to area Unified basketball teams and Special Olympics Maine. All is Welles donated all the hats to every player and buddy, quickly saying yes when Auburn Suburban reached out and asked if it wanted to be involved with Buddy Ball.

Michelle Irwin Doucette, an occupational therapist for the Auburn School Department and coach Auburn Suburban, a softball team in the Androscoggin Youth Softball League, said that programs like Buddy Ball bring out the best in people. 

“You can’t leave in a bad mood,” Irwin Doucette said. “It’s just joy. They are celebrating every single part of every play. The world needs more of that. It’s uplifting. There’s no greater gift than to have my own kids to be able to be involved in that way.”

“It is fun to help,” Irwin Doucette’s daughter, Sarah, said. “The kids are really fun and positive.”

Owen Bushway, 11, runs the bases with Johnny during Sunday’s Buddy Ball baseball game at the Auburn Suburban Baseball and Softball Field Complex. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Many players on Central Maine Carnage are buddies to the players, and Morin said her email has been flooded with requests to volunteer. With “30 rotating buddies,” according to Morin, the league is already bigger than anyone expected for its first year.

“We are looking for future seasons, so next year, definitely,” Morin said. “It would be hard to get shirts now in time for more this year. We were hoping for a small year for Year 1, so we could work out some kinks if they came up. Twenty-two isn’t as small as we thought we’d get — with COVID, we thought we would get smaller — but 22 is awesome. Next year we can only go up.”


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