St. Lucie Mets help Inclusion Revolution thrive

St. Lucie Mets help Inclusion Revolution thrive

Before every season, when the New York Mets' big-league club gathers in St. Lucie, Florida to stretch their arms and shake off a harsh winter, they all unite around one common goal: a pizza party.

But not just any pizza party. Not your run-of-the-mill, on-the-go lunch; this particular feast is the culmination of one of the year's biggest inclusion triumphs in South Florida. The St. Lucie Mets' longtime partnership with Special Olympics has given rise to an annual clinic attended by Mets big-leaguers and coaches, as well as 50 Special Olympics athletes who are about to change those big-leaguers and coaches' lives for the better by helping explain, through enthusiastic action, the beauty of the game of baseball.

"Our local athletes, when the come back next year and they see the same players ... we had one that made t-shirts this year that said, 'Brandon Nimmo's number one fan,' and all she wanted was to see Brandon this year," recalled Kasey Blair, Assistant General Manager of the St. Lucie club. "It's really special to see these athletes come back and have the same players here for them that are here every year."

"And typically they stay after," Sherry Wheelock, President and CEO of Special Olympics Florida noted enthusiastically. "Brandon came out and had pizza with all of us."

"At this clinic -- and I've been three or four years now in a row -- everybody's there," Wheelock confirmed, regarding the preseason clinic with the MLB team. "From the head coach to the owners, the entire team is there for this experience."

St. Lucie Mets, New York Mets stars shine alongside Special Olympics athletes in clinics

In addition to their preseason showcase, the St. Lucie Mets will also throw Camp Amazin' this summer, which will include 75 additional Special Olympics athletes collaborating with the minor-league staff on May 25.

Minor-league baseball exists to foster a community feel. Whether it's big-leaguers training/rehabbing in St. Lucie, recent draft picks getting their feet wet, or teenaged signees from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, these clubs often represent the first opportunity many young athletes have had to get absorbed in professional baseball -- and they're doing so in a smaller town, with a communal backdrop where every familiar face quickly becomes valued highly. These athletes, who are looking to make an impact and get comfortable themselves, are often able to quickly form strong bonds with Special Olympics athletes, who have plenty of pursuits off the field, but still thrive in the heart of competition.

Then they come back the next spring, and that bond remains unbroken.

Though every season and every event is special, and could lead to the long-lasting bonds that create volunteerism and perfect coaching fits, one Tim Tebow's arrival at the clinic was particularly special for Blair, who remembers the hush that fell over the field almost as clearly as what shattered it.

"These athletes just idolize [Tebow], and he's so amazing with all of them," Blair noted. "We typically have the whole team introduce themselves at the beginning, so all the athletes are sitting down. It got real quiet for a second, and all of a sudden, we just see Tim kind of gesture, and one of the athletes just sprinted all the way up from the back, gave him the biggest hug. Everyone was in tears because it was the most special moment ... just to see those athletes be able to meet one of their idols, and for him to be a part of that year's clinic."

Blair first approached Wheelock and Special Olympics about a continuing partnership in South Florida, believing in the program's mission of being available to create wholesome experiences not just once every four years, but 365 days per year. That means being there for one another. It means opening doors in all aspects of life -- from Special Olympian Malcolm Harris-Gowdie, who displays his statistical mastery in the St. Lucie Mets' broadcast booth and on the PA system, to an athlete known as "Mr. Hollywood," who'd like to be in the movies someday and is pursuing film production.

Some of those athletes have even grown up to become coaches themselves (a volunteer opportunity that remains available to interested community members via the "Go Coach!" Initiative).

The minor-league game -- especially in Florida and Arizona, where every 10 months, a swath of the most familiar names in the baseball world happen to float through -- is unrivaled, in terms of forging close bonds with the flocking crowds. Add in a dash of instruction and a sun-baked field dotted with eager participants (and, yes, a few stray slices of 'za), and you'll get at least some idea of why the St. Lucie Mets and Special Olympics have been able to create lifelong "number one fans" so effectively.