NISKAYUNA — With the game in crunch time Thursday evening, Dan LeBlanc crushed the ball over the fence at River Road Park, and as the Schenectady Southpaws shortstop and team captain rounded the bases, he was greeted by a series of high-fives.
From his opponents.
It might not be a common sight in most adult softball league games, but for the Southpaws and their fellow Special Olympics softball teams in the Capital Region, that’s the name of the game.
“That’s Special Olympics,” Schenectady head coach Bill Van Evera said. “We root for one another.”
Just getting back out on the field this summer is a welcome sight for the Southpaws.
The team’s 2020 season was wiped out by restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, making the return to the diamond this summer even more appreciated.
“There’s a little more rust to work out,” said veteran Southpaws player Courtney Chadwick, “but it’s good to be back out.”
For Van Evera and his fellow coaches — nearly all of whom have some personal connection to individuals with intellectual or physical disabilities — it’s not the competition that’s most important.
It’s seeing the difference that the opportunities given by Special Olympics can help make in the lives of their players.
A few years back, Van Evera made index cards for each Southpaws players to hand out at the team’s end-of-season dinner. On each card was a simple, three-word message.
“Make a difference.”
“I said, ‘That’s what I want you to do. Think about, every day, how you can make a positive difference in somebody else’s life,’” Van Evera said. “I told my wife they’d probably just throw them away, but I had about half-a-dozen calls over the winter . . . saying, ‘Coach, do you have a minute? I want to tell you about a difference I made in someone’s life.’
“That’s the rewarding part for me and my assistant coaches. They won’t play softball forever, but they’re going to have to live in this world for a long time. Unfortunately, for this population with intellectual and developmental disabilities, society puts a ceiling on what the expectation of these folks’ ability level is. Not just here, but in anything.”
Van Evera, who’s been involved as a Special Olympics volunteer for nearly two decades and has been the Southpaws’ head coach for nine years — he also helps run a golf group at Schenectady Municipal Golf Course, leading a new Tuesday night group while Michelle and Dan Stopera coach the original, Wednesday night group that’s been around for more than two decades — said the team will likely get in 10 games or so this summer.
There are regular tournament games, including an event tentatively scheduled for Clifton Park in September, but the informal weekly games against other Capital Region teams — based in Mechanicville, Colonie, Glens Falls and Albany — were something than Van Evera pitched to fellow coaches a few years back because Special Olympics rules limit team rosters to just 13 players for tournament competition.
“Somebody’s going to be left out,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘Why can’t we just have some informal games?’ It’s worked out great. They love it.
“Other teams call these scrimmages. I call them games, because that’s how I want them to think. This is for real, let’s get after it.”
The team is also anticipating the return of the Special Olympics New York State Fall Games, which will be held Oct. 22 and 23 in Glens Falls and are back after a six-year absence.
Special Olympics New York is the largest state chapter in the country, consisting of more than 68,000 athletes with intellectual or physical disabilities.
For athletes like Roger Foster, the chance to get out and play is a treasure.
“I love playing with my team,” Foster said after wrapping up an inning of pitching. “They’re good people. I love the coaches, too.”
That love is mutual.
“He’s just a wonderful human being,” Van Evera said of Foster. “He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
One of Van Evera’s favorite stories of growth through the years is with LeBlanc, the team’s shortstop.
LeBlanc joined the team at the same time Van Evera became head coach, and the then 20-year-old “had some issues,” according to his coach.
Van Evera quickly set the terms of the relationship.
“I said to him, ‘As of right now, I don’t care about your past, because I can’t change that, and neither can you. I can only help you change your present,’” Van Evera said. “I haven’t had one stitch of problems.”
And when offered a chance for a leadership role, LeBlanc jumped at the opportunity to become the Southpaws’ co-captain.
“I had to write a big paragraph about why I should be the captain,” he said.
LeBlanc leads by voice and by example, displaying relentless hustle on the diamond and encouraging his teammates.
It’s something he learned from the approach that Van Evera and his assistant coaches have taken. They all have personal experience with individuals with intellectual or physical disabilities — Van Evera’s son has Down syndrome — and understand the best way to mentor their players without ever crossing a line.
“They’ll take constructive criticism, if you give them warmth at the same time,” Van Evera said. “I never have to worry about any of my coaches being a bully. I never give it two seconds’ thought.”
Given that chance, the players respond with enthusiasm.
“I love doing the best I can,” Chadwick said, “on every play.”