A Different Kind of Field of Dreams
BY Grace Bird
February 19, 2018

As is true at many universities, the sports fields at Springfield College sit largely dormant during the summer, with students scattered for jobs and internships and local community groups filling the diamonds and courts only occasionally. And one group that you’d rarely see is young people with disabilities, given the traditional nature of Springfield’s facilities.

When the college renovated its baseball field last year, however, it took the unusual step of incorporating into the complex an “ability field” designed especially for students with special needs. An ability field is distinguished by its infill, which is more compact than what is normally used, as well as its bases, which are level to the ground to accommodate walking canes and wheelchairs.

The idea of embedding an ability field in a baseball park originated with President Mary-Beth Cooper, who saw the outdated facility as an opportunity to renovate it, and in doing so, expand its accessibility, she said.

“Many of our community partners have asked us in the past about using our field. I really felt it’s really a crime not to have our field utilized by all members of our community,” Cooper said.

Kevin McAllister, chair of Springfield’s department of sports management and recreation, hopes to weave the field into some courses. Currently, the university offers a graduate sports management class that requires students to spend a semester planning a Special Olympics volleyball tournament, held on Springfield’s campus, for 30 teams across New England. McAllister said he imagined sports management students could plan another event for players with special needs at Springfield's ability field.

Several special needs organizations in the area have expressed excitement about Springfield’s new dedicated ability field, as such facilities are rare. The Special Olympics of Massachusetts, which has had a relationship with the college for a number of years, plans to use the field for baseball practices or competitions in the future, said Jon Scully, director of sports and fitness.

The Miracle League, Western Massachusetts’s chapter of the national baseball organization for players with special needs, has big plans for expansion thanks to Springfield’s new ability field, according to Ernie Fitzell, the club’s executive director. Fitzell said he hopes to increase the club’s enrollment from 36 to 100 so players won’t come up against the same teams each week.

“This field is a godsend,” said Fitzell, who founded the club in 2015. The Miracle League has been using a grass field for the past two seasons, which Fitzell said poses challenges for many members with physical disabilities. The nearest ability field is about an hour away, Fitzell said.

“On this new turf, you pretty much glide across it,” Fitzell said of Springfield’s new ability field.

The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which donated $300,000 to the project, backs the “unique” idea to combine an ability field with a larger baseball park and intends to perpetuate it in the future, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Chuck Brady said. The foundation has called the notion of combining an ability field with a baseball park “The Springfield Method.”

“We know now that we have a good design that we’ll be able to build a traditional baseball field but incorporate an adaptive field,” Brady said. “That model can literally serve all children.”

Springfield is now raising money to complete phase two of the project, which involves adding features outside the batting cages including lights and bleachers.

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InsideHigherEd.com


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