It was thought that Blake Chandler would never get to hit a baseball or score a run on a diamond alongside his peers, to the sound of thunderous cheers. Having Down syndrome and impaired motor skills had held him back.
This season was different, however. At the first game of the Merrick Avenue Middle School’s season, Blake was able to play baseball like never before — and there was a huge surprise in his honor.
It was Rams coach Anthony Rizzo, a special-education aide at MAMS, who set up the surprise for Blake, an eighth-grader. Rizzo works one on one with students he’s paired with, but had never been paired with Blake. Instead, it was Blake’s boisterous personality that attracted Rizzo to him.
“I first met Blake last year, and I saw that he was very social,” Rizzo said. “He’d say hi and give me fist bumps — and that’s how I am also.”
“Seeing Blake every day at work made my job less of a job and more of a privilege,” Rizzo said.
Throughout the year of poking his head into the eighth-grader’s classroom, Rizzo discovered that Blake loved baseball, despite an inability to play. As the seventh-grade baseball coach, Rizzo started forming ideas of how to get him involved.
At first, those ideas simply involved having Blake cheer the team on while they played games. “Something clicked in my head, but I just envisioned him being able to try out for the team,” Rizzo said. “I just envisioned him on day one walking out on the field and being this great shortstop — and then I thought, I’ll make him a jersey.”
From there, the idea went further — “I can make him the manager,” Rizzo thought.
For the team’s first game on May 21, Rizzo decided to make it “Blake Day.” He made and sold 75 T-shirts to faculty members, which he had designed. On the front is the Rams logo; on the back, Blake’s name stretches across the top.
Blake’s parents were invited to the game and were given a hint of a surprise, but they had no idea of the celebration in store for him. A 36-foot banner featuring a picture of him and his name was hung from one of the field’s fences.
“They were just celebrating Blake,” his father, Barry, said. “Both teams were screaming for him.”
“He’s certainly not usually the center of attention — except for at home,” Barry said.
Blake threw out the first pitch and received some special gifts courtesy of the Baseball Hall of Fame in upstate Cooperstown. One was a baseball signed by former Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, and the other a proclamation from the Hall of Fame declaring Chandler the “biggest fan.”
It was time to start the game, and the Chandlers thought their moment to shine was wrapped. “Blake, get your bat,” Rizzo told him.
“You could see the joy on his face,” Rizzo said.
Blake hit the ball from a tee, and rounded the bases. Both teams burst into applause, and his team surrounded and embraced him after.
“I wanted Mr. and Mrs. Chandler, for that hour, to maybe just say, ‘We’re going to my son’s baseball game,’” Rizzo said. “They never had the opportunity to do that.”
The event was such a success that Rizzo is pondering whether to make this a staple in the team’s program. “It should be done more,” he said.
“The enjoyment I saw on his face when I handed him the jersey, it was as if the struggle he goes through on a daily basis went away for a minute,” Rizzo said.