Hard ball or beach ball: Still the perfect game

Aaron Gratton is batting leadoff today, and he hammers the very first pitch deep to right field, an opposite field blast that has triple written all over it. It’s clear the moment he leaves the batter’s box, however, that he has no intention of stopping at third. He wants an inside the park home run, and he will get it unless the throw from the cutoff man to Justin Bouvier at home plate is nearly perfect. It is: Not quite perfect, but it’s just close enough. It’s a hair up the first base line, and Bouvier is able to snag the ball and dive at Gratton a split second before the young man dives headfirst into home.
So begins another afternoon of baseball in the swimming pool at Mount Abraham Union High School. The bat is a Whiffle ball bat and the orb is a great silver beach ball. And the players are students in the school’s special education department, wonderful teenagers who happen to have autism or Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities.
After he’s called out, Gratton, 14, smiles at his hubris and pounds the water with his hand good-naturedly, a little frustrated, and then shakes the water from his brown curls. Gratton has a pervasive developmental disorder.
Bouvier, 25, is a St. Michael’s trained water-safety instructor in the school’s special education program. He is a husky man with a boyish smile and a spectacular tenor voice. Along with lifeguard and teacher April Orvis, 34, and other school-based clinicians, he dives into the pool with these kids every other day.
This afternoon there are eight students, which means the baseball diamond they have constructed in the shallow end of the pool has just enough fielders. Among the highlights of today’s contest? Ian Freeman, a charismatic 18-year-old with Down syndrome, bangs out a hit that is reminiscent of a single off Fenway Park’s Green Monster: It is a line shot to left that might have been a home run if it had landed a finger-width higher, but instead ricochets off the very top of the ladder into the pool, all the way back to where Bouvier is standing in the center of the diamond. Samantha Dunbar, 13, makes a peg to first base that would have made Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter proud. And Stephanie Freegard, 14, who is capable of swimming to the bottom of even the deepest section of the pool, makes an unassisted double play when she handles a grounder — well, a skipper, if I am going to be precise — flawlessly with a runner on first.
And they accomplish all of this in 3 and 4 feet of water.
“I just love watching their triumphs,” Bouvier says. “I want them to feel success. Sometimes it’s something that seems very small: Learning how to hold a bat properly. And sometimes it’s much bigger. Ian was petrified of the water in seventh grade. Now? He swims laps.” (Indeed, as part of his pre-game warm-up the day I was there, Freeman was doing the butterfly stroke across the pool.)
Bouvier and Orvis approach their work with an enthusiasm that is infectious. Clearly they are having massive amounts of fun with their students. “Once we had mastered water polo — and the demand of throwing the ball in the right direction — we thought, why not up the ante to baseball?” Bouvier recalls.
Pat Mattison, a consulting teacher in the school’s special education department, sees particular benefits to the students’ afternoons in the aquatic ballpark: “The water makes these kids feel so capable. In the pool, their needs are being met, and they’re accomplishing far more than we can measure on a standard test. Yes, it’s a phys-ed class, but it’s one where they’re capable of doing the same activities as their peers.”
In other words, water becomes the great equalizer.
In this case, however, it is also great fun.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 15, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Hard ball or beach ball: Still the perfect game

  1. Yankee says:

    I just found this blog. I have read and enjoyed your columns in The Free Press for years. Your columns about Ian Freeman are particularly significant to me. I have a very young daughter with Down syndrome. You see through Ian’s disabilities and recognize his very special qualities. Thank you for writing about them. I hope that people will see the same in my daughter.

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