Thursday, October 23, 2008

“The Team Next Door”

c. 2008 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows here is the story of my third book, ‘Popcorn Season.’ Composing this work permanently changed my life for the better, and proved John Lennon’s observation that ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’

Writing is an open-ended journey.

Reliably, the craft of wordsmithing seems to produce unintended consequences that can be productive, or baffling. Part of the adventure is to manage these after-effects skillfully, and use them to their full potential.

Last year, I took on seasonal work covering sports events in our neighboring district to the east. By chance, this undertaking put me in touch with a team of special needs athletes. Their representative was a man named Bill Jenner.

He invited me to attend a Special Olympics softball game at a place called Massucci Field, where ‘The Ashtabula Lakers’ were scheduled to compete.

The group played in a league that included MR/DD clubs from other counties, such as Geauga Metzenbaum. Because press coverage for the events had been non-existent, my visits soon became a familiar topic of on-the-field conversation.

Athletes on Jenner’s team called me ‘The Reporter.’ It was a nickname I wore with pride.

The Lakers carried an impressive roster of pitchers, who were stingy and unflappable. But their ability to hit was even more impressive. Eventually, I reckoned that every inning sounded like a kettle of popping kernels dancing over a fire.

‘Popcorn’ was the buzzword I used to describe this phenomenon.

My new friends made it to state competition that year, but missed out on winning a championship. Yet their courage was undeniable.

The buttery essence of Lakers softball lingered into winter. Somehow, I needed to recapture that spirit of optimism and teamwork.

In January of this year, I began to collect stories from their summer campaign. These reports formed the foundation for an inspirational book called ‘Popcorn Season.’ Publishing this manuscript was a personal blessing. But then, the law of unintended consequences took hold, once again.

With warmer days came new assignments!

The Lakers were scheduled to appear in a benefit event at the county fair. With my notebook and camera, I slogged through rain to cover this entertaining event:

Wet weather fails to dampen spirits of Special Olympics athletes

Build an ark, and they will come. Especially on an August weekend at the local fairgrounds.

The final day of festivities at this year’s county fair was dominated by a deluge of nearly biblical proportions. Rain remained persistent throughout much of the day.

Yet benefit events sponsored by the Truckers Helping Hands organization and motorcycle legend Jesse James made the downpour a minor distraction.

The day offered a truck and motorcycle show like no other.

Celebrated were forty years of competition by members of the ACSO teams. Also remembered was the late Russ ‘Boss Hog’ Starcher, who had been instrumental in motivating the professional drivers to do greater things in the name of goodness.

Truckers Helping Hands has supported the ACSO faithfully, with a network of blue-collar heroes across the region. Olympics Coordinator Bill Jenner observed that their involvement has been a priceless gift for his athletes.

“I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “They top themselves every year. We thank them so much.”

With the season drawing to a close, Jenner and his crew once again battled their way into a playoff spot among teams from around the state. But this time, the result was a league championship, in Division III.

The title caused a countywide celebration. Gleefully, I wrote about their success:

Special Olympics Team Cultivates Goodwill

Visitors to the 45th annual Geneva Grape JAMboree… received something extra with their fruited delights – a dose of goodwill, thanks to the Ashtabula County Special Olympics.

Athletes from the ‘Lakers’ softball team were on hand to celebrate their Division III State Title, won after a lengthy season of dramatic competition and sheer endurance. It was the first time they had taken the crown in their twenty-four year history.

Bill Jenner, a Coordinator of the ACSO, said it once again demonstrated how a positive attitude can open doors to success.

“This championship is all about what the athletes can do, not what they can’t do,” he observed. “All of the athletes worked very hard for this, and we are proud of them.”

Instrumental in supporting the team throughout their season was Truckers Helping Hands, a group organized to provide assistance of all kinds to the handicapped athletes. Scott Carlson, a long-term member of the organization, said that the effort has exceeded even his own expectations.

“We started with a few trucks, and an idea,” he recalled. “But it kept growing with each year. It has been incredible!”

The softball season had ended. Yet one more contest remained on the team schedule. It was a match between The Lakers and constables from around the county. This would be my farewell report for the year:

Lakers meet law enforcement for goodwill game at Massucci Field

ASHTABULA – Typically, police officers need to possess many different skills as part of their everyday routine. They must be physically agile and strong, with the stamina of a professional athlete. Additionally, their ability to observe and recall incidents is constantly tested on the job. Often, these public servants are called upon to calmly negotiate disputes. And they are required to make quick judgements based on limited amounts of information. All of this must be rendered with a polite demeanor that will inspire confidence in the public.

But in Ashtabula, officers were recently asked to demonstrate a new skill as part of their service to the community.

Familiarity with the game of - softball.

On Saturday October 4th, a personable posse of peace officers from the county met to compete with the Ashtabula County Special Olympics softball team at Massucci Field.

It was the new Battle of ‘Bula – Law enforcement versus The Lakers.

The Special Olympics softball club was still fresh from winning a state title in Division III competition. So they took the field with lots of energy, and pride. Adrenaline seemed to fill the air.

Think of the ‘Popcorn Season’ with a dose of Tabasco.

The first game ended with those in law enforcement besting The Lakers by a wildly prolific score of 19-12. A second match featured mixed teams comprised of both police officers and Special Olympics athletes.

After the meet had concluded, competitors from both sides looked happy, but exhausted.

Tim Hosken, an officer with the City of Ashtabula Police Department, was glad to have participated in the event. He and the other police officers had formed a genuine bond with The ACSO Lakers softball team. But as he left Massucci Field, there was a touch of fatigue in his voice.

“Now we’re all ready for a mineral bath,” he said with a smile.

These journalistic entries helped to fulfill the promise of ‘Popcorn Season’ with a renewed sense of hope. I felt humbled by the team and their ascension to glory…
And grateful for unintended consequences.

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