“I got the idea when I went to watch my nephew play a basketball game at Shooting for Success,” said Mark. “I’ve always done baseball. I told my wife, ‘We need a baseball league for these kids.’ I just happened to know the right people to be able to get it started.”
The league has found a home at the Thomas G. Morris ball complex in Pottsville where they hold games every Saturday morning of their regular season. “The Pottsville Athletic Association has been great from day one. They have graciously let us use their fields and supported us in every possible way,” said Mark.
The league has seen impressive expansion in the eight years since it began, nearly doubling the number of it’s players. “Our first year we had 42 kids playing. We had 76 play this year. We’ve expanded from one team playing on one field to four teams playing on three fields. We’ve had families come from as far as Paris, Arkansas, to have their kids play in our league. I was so surprised we had so many kids that first year because I had no idea there was such a need around here,” said Mark.
The league is open to anyone with special needs, regardless of age or disability. “We’ve had kids everywhere from mildly autistic to even one boy who was completely blind,” said Mark. “I am never going to tell anyone they can’t play. Mark said that establishing an age limit for the first year of FOA was his biggest regret. “I had it set ages 3 to 18. There was a young man in a wheelchair who came to watch his brothers and sister play but was too old to play. The last game of the year we had some kids that could not be at our Day of Champions celebration. I asked his parents if they thought he would like to play. He was so excited when I asked. He had the biggest smile I had seen all year. I knew from that second on we would never have an age limit again.” This player’s story has continued for another season. “This year I had the opportunity to watch the same young man bat a home run at our Day of Champions. He raced his electric wheelchair around the first few bases but stopped at third base and stood up and walked across the baseline to home plate. That was one of the greatest moments for me the last eight years.”
Mark has many stories to tell of players overcoming their disabilities and enjoying the game. “We had one boy our first year who used a walker and got upset when he couldn’t get to the ball as fast as the boy who played first base. The next time he was out on the field he went out without his walker and got to the ball faster. He was so proud of himself. He never went back to playing with a walker,” said Mark with a proud smile.
It’s impossible to talk to Mark without realizing the heart he has for the players. “I was talking to one of the dad’s of our Angels at our last game. He told me how much his son enjoys playing baseball during our season. He said they were at home the other day and a major league game was on TV and his younger son pointed at the TV and said, ‘Bubba plays ball.’ He said our Angel got the biggest smile on his face because his little brother knows he can play baseball,” said Mark.
Finances have no bearing on who can and cannot play because the league is absolutely free to its players and their families. “From day one we’ve never had to charge a penny for the kids to play. We have been able to pay for everything. We furnish the equipment and jerseys. We pay for insurance for all the kids. We buy them pictures and take those who want to go to a Traveler’s game every year. It takes a little over $5,000 a year to do everything,” said Mark.
The non-profit organization is able to offer all of this because of donations and grants from around the River Valley community. “If we want to continue to do everything we’ve been doing, and grow our number of players, our greatest need is money. But I haven’t really had a problem with that. Our community has been so generous. We’ve always been able to raise enough money every season and still have a little bit left over to start off the next season.” said Mark.
All money raised goes directly to A Field of Angels. Major sponsors include Pope County Community Grants, Con-Agra, Friendship Community Care, and VIP Awards. “When I first decided to do this, Kevin Van Es of VIP Awards came to me and said, ‘Whatever you need in trophies you’ve got it. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.’ For eight years now he’s given us trophies at the end of every season.” said Mark. “The past three years, Friendship Community Care has supplied food for our Day of Champions, the last game of the season, for our players, their families, and everyone who comes out to watch the game and cheer on the kids.”
A Field of Angels also provides baseball supplies to its players including everything from helmets to bats. “CJ’s consignment of Russellville calls me about twice a year and donates big boxes of baseball cleats and pants, and any related items they don’t sell,” said Mark. “I give them to new players. It makes them feel so welcome when they sign up and I can give them a jersey, a bat, a glove and cleats. They come out that first day and leave with everything they need,” said Mark. “It’s so neat. I have parents who come up to me after the first week and say the their kids love the cleats, and can’t get them to take them off.”
Baseball is a showcase of the abilities of team members. It serves as a distraction from the challenges players and their families face in their daily lives. “That first year, I had one mom tell me it was the first time they had felt like a normal family, because she was able to sit in the stands and watch her son play baseball,” said Mark. “That makes such a big impact when you hear something like that. My kids used to play. I used to coach them, and I took it for granted that my kids could go out there and do all that. Until I went to watch my nephew in that basketball game, I never thought about a need for a special needs league around here.”
A Field of Angels is always looking for new players and Mark is excited about seeing the organization grow even larger. “I want to encourage parents to bring their kids out just to try it. Even if they don’t want to keep playing. If they just want to bring the kids out and let them try we will get them their jerseys and let them play. If they don’t want to come back it’s fine, but if they want to come back they are more than welcome to come back. I don’t care if they want to come out halfway through the season, if they show up we will let them play,” said Mark.
In addition to bringing in new players, another goal of Mark’s is collaboration with other teams around the state. “One thing I would like to do is get some other teams from other towns to come plays us for our big Memorial Day game. But, even if we can’t get it any better, I think we are doing pretty great right now. I would also like to have more groups of people, come out and cheer on our Angels,” said Mark.
“Just being out here cheering for them is as important as being on the field,” said Mark. “Supporting them as they play means just as much as anything else. These kids are amazing to watch. The pure love for the game is a joy to see. Even if you come once and never come back again you will remember it.”
Volunteers of all ages are welcome as well. “I allow kids who want to help to get out on the field with them. Often the kids they help go to same school as them. It allows them to make a connection. It’s a lot easier to make a friend on the field than at school. I had a boy our first year, who played on a team in Dardanelle, and he came out and helped another boy. He ended up missing one of his own tournament games just so he could see the boy he helped all year play in the Day of Champions game and watch him get his trophy,” said Mark.
Even after eight years, Mark is still looking forward to the next season. “My goal when we started was to make a commitment to do this for 10 years. I figure I’ll be at it much longer than that. I get so much out of it,” said Mark. “Just seeing the kids change from their first day on the field to the end of the season, seeing how much they love playing and are comfortable interacting with the other players.”
Mark says that A Field of Angels has changed his perspective on sports. He believes it can do the same for others, parents and coaches bogged down by the negativity sometimes found in competitive athletics. “With me being an umpire all the time, I can see the bad side of organized baseball,” said Mark. “But these kids remind me of the good side of the game. If some of the coaches came out here and just saw the joy the kids have while playing it, might change their perspective of the game.”
How does Mark measure success? “By the smiles on the faces of the kids, and the parents in the stands. As long as we can keep the kids coming out and having fun, and the support of the parents and volunteers I think we have a success. I just have a blast with them every year. It’s beyond me now. I got it started, but everyone has jumped in and helped make it what it is today. It’s all about the kids.”
More information on how to donate or get involved is available on the non-profit’s Facebook page: A Field of Angels.