Special Olympics’ opening Ceremonies at the Coliseum
SOAKING UP THE ATMOSPHERE OF THESE GAMES AND WATCHING AN INSTANT CLASSIC OF A SOFTBALL GAME
Being that I have a cousin with Down’s Syndrome whose sunny disposition brightens everyone’s day,
Being that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a part of the Autism Spectrum Disorder,
And being that I had never seen a Special Olympics event before,
It would have been just plain wrong to not go, observe, and experience what in my view is the biggest sports event in Los Angeles and Southern California this year.
So on Wednesday I traveled to my collegiate alma mater, UCLA, to check out the atmosphere at a place where more sports, including soccer, softball, gymnastics, tennis and volleyball, were having their events than anywhere else in SoCal.
It was a typically sunny afternoon on L.A’s Westside – not too hot or muggy, thank goodness – as I arrived at Wilson Plaza on the UCLA campus where a Special Olympics festival was going on, complete with booths, a stage where a lady was singing a rather soulful tune, and plenty of people milling around who were obviously happy to be there, taking part in the various activities and supporting a large fraction of the 7,000 athletes that descended upon the Southland to compete in the home of Bruin Nation.
The folks who I noticed were especially happy to be there, who looked like they loved their jobs in a most obvious way, were the volunteers who did things like manning booths, helping with different events, and answering questions and giving directions to all the visitors.
A Special Olympian preparing to deliver a pitch
I spent a little time talking to some of those pastel-colored shirt-wearing people, which gave me the impression that they really loved what they were doing as they greeted me in a shiny and happy way.
They were of all ages, but I particularly noticed that quite a few of those volunteers were of college age, young kids building up their resume; what employer wouldn’t be impressed by a stint volunteering at the Special Olympics?
After about a half hour at Wilson Plaza, I made my way up the hill to Easton Stadium, UCLA’s softball facility on the northwestern corner of the campus, to check out those games being held there; the walk certainly made for a good workout, I must say.
As my background in sports was/is baseball and softball, spending roughly 90% of my sports life playing those two games and working with young people and coaching those two sports, I wanted to observe the atmosphere and learn how different the rules and level of play were in the Special Olympics aspect of America’s pastime.
I got to Easton just in time to see the Puerto Rican team finish their win against one of the three U.S. teams, getting there in the last inning. I then stayed for the next contest, Mexico against another U.S. team, one hailing from Missouri.
I took the time to talk to several of the volunteers who were there, asking them things such as whether there were any rule differences in Special Olympics softball as opposed to regular softball. They all proved to be friendly and pleasant to talk to, one of them having played college softball while another one was a longtime Dodger fan.
Not that experience in the game mattered as even those who had little or no experience in the sport they were working at were enthusiastic, giving off an aura of being happy to be there and willing to do anything to ensure that the fans enjoyed themselves.
As for the atmosphere, though I admittedly had never been there it had a feel akin to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, what with the different countries being represented in that ten-team pool play tournament and the enthusiasm that the fans exuded.
I particularly felt that vibe when I chatted a bit with the American team from Arizona (the third U.S. team was a local SoCal one) right after they lost to Puerto Rico; they seemed a bit tired after playing in the warm sun, but their attitude remained positive as everyone, me included, congratulated them for their efforts.
When I inquired how one player did, I was told that he had two hits and drove in two runs, which I replied, “That’s better than how I did in my last game (No lie, as I flat-out stunk in going 1-for-5 in my most recent Saturday pick-up softball game and hitting the ball out of the infield just once)!”
As for how the game between Mexico and the U.S.-Missouri teams unfolded, I can safely say that it was – to borrow a phrase from ESPN – an Instant Classic.
The fundamentals were excellent as it was evident that the coaches from both teams taught their charges well; the players hustled after the ball, their throws were strong, and the vast majority of them hit the ball with authority.
One player that I particularly noticed was the shortstop from Mexico, as he made two plays that made him look like Hall-of-Famer and St. Louis Cardinal legend Ozzie Smith, going into the hole to his right twice to stop grounders and throwing the runner out both times.
Which led me to turn to a group of Mexican fans and state, “!Tu shortstop es muy bueno!”
But it was another player, the center fielder on the U.S-Missouri team, that I won’t soon forget.
It was the next-to-last inning and the Mexican team, after trailing 14-7 at one point, had rallied to come to within one run at 14-13, with the tying run 60 feet away on third base.
With two outs, the Mexican batter proceeded to whack a long shot to deep center field that had extra base hit and a lead for Mexico written all over it when the center fielder, who I recall wore #15, went after it like he had played in the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati two weeks before and made an outstanding catch, essentially saving the game for the American-Missourians as they went on to score two insurance runs and win, that center fielder catching the last out – a line drive by Mexico’s second baseman – for good measure.
Looking at him celebrating with his hands in the air afterwards, he obviously knew the kind of impact he had on the game’s outcome as I enthusiastically told the folks around me that he deserved the game ball for his efforts.
The thing that impressed me the most about those ball players, however, was not the hard-fought efforts or the level of play that they displayed.
It was the sense of sportsmanship that they showed through the game as several of the U.S-Missouri players made it a point to shake the Mexican catcher’s hand before they settled in to face the pitcher.
One word described those gestures:
Showing good form during an at-bat
Class that you wouldn’t see anywhere else in any sport; I can’t imagine a Dodger shaking hands with the Angels’ or Giants’ catchers before getting into the batter’s box, and I definitely can’t imagine a UCLA Bruin shaking hands with a USC Trojan before facing the ‘SC hurler.
To be blunt, that contest was the best game I witnessed in either baseball or softball this year.
And left me in quite the good mood as I left Easton, where (as an aside), I ran into Los Angeles Clipper coach Doc Rivers!
After shaking his hand and offering him pleasant wishes and good luck in his Clippers’ upcoming season, I boarded a shuttle to take me down the hill to a corner of Wilson Plaza, where I did some errands there and in Westwood Village before heading home, memories of that instant classic of a softball game freshly dancing in my head.
The only impression about the whole thing that didn’t give me a positive feeling was the fact that the game wasn’t televised, as a lot of fans – particularly on the Special Olympics’ Facebook page – lamented how ESPN’s Special Olympics coverage, outside of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, consists of just one nightly half-hour show with features of different athletes.
I find it rather unfair that ESPN apparently cannot find it in their hearts to set aside, at minimum, a daily three-hour block to give proper coverage to these outstanding people who are fulfilling a dream by being in Los Angeles and competing in the sport they love on the world’s stage.
Having said that, I reckon that the athletes don’t really mind as these experiences they are having will undoubtedly be a highlight of their lives, if not the highlight.
More than anything else, watching those softball players reinforced my conviction of Special Olympics being the epitome of what sports should be all about.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver certainly had the right idea – a genius idea, really – when she started it all in 1962; she certainly knew what she was doing.
I hope I’m able to go back and watch some more events before it all ends on Sunday, but if I don’t…
Rest assured this will not be the last time I watch a Special Olympics.
I had the fortune to find a couple of videos featuring the two teams I watched, thanks to YouTube:
Here’s one featuring Mexico’s softball team at an earlier game played before their showdown with U.S-Missouri:
Mexico’s Special Olympics Softball Team, having a great time in L.A.
This clip features the U.S-Missouri team preparing for their big moment in the World Games:
U.S. – Missouri Special Olympics Softball Team
And to top everything off, here’s a video clip of the U.S. delegation triumphantly marching into the L.A. Coliseum during the Opening Ceremonies to huge applause:
Special Olympics Opening Ceremonies – The U.S. Team Entering The Coliseum