JP Nickolai has two secret weapons out on the field.
“This arm is deadly,” he said, tapping his large, right bicep, “And this is the kings of kings of knock outs,” he said, tapping his other arm.
When the Soldotna man stepped up to the plate at this year’s Frontier Community Services’ 10th Annual World Series Baseball Event, with both hands white-knuckled around the bat, he expected to crank the pitch over the fence and into the forest beyond.
It is Nickolai’s seventh consecutive year attending. He really enjoys baseball, he said.
And he wasn’t the only one.
A couple of hours before the first pitch Saturday at the Kenai Little League fields, about 80 people walked about, many of the players, most with developmental disabilities, were signing in. In a corner, at a green picnic table, the Peninsula Oilers were hunched over in their black warm-ups, signing baseballs.
“It’s a great community event,” said Ric Hunter, standing nearby the Oiler’s table. “It gets everybody out, from all over, not just from Soldotna and Kenai — Valdez comes.”
Now in his 10th year playing, Hunter said he looks forward to the game every year. Each time the event cycles between Kenai and Soldotna. During the first game, about 400 people showed up. Hunter has played outfield, infield and catcher; though he said he has no favorite position.
“One of the main things is for people who experience disabilities … that they can play baseball, our national game,” said Ken Duff, Frontier Community Services executive director.
Most of the players have attended the annual game every year, he said, and they’re always asking him when the next game is scheduled.
The game helps some players with social skills, he said. It’s just being on a team.
“Think of playing the game of baseball,” Duff said.
Players need to coordinate, cooperate and communicate, he said. And, with sometimes 100s from the community watching, there is the identity that a team affords each of its players, he said.
“It’s that recognition that you don’t get any other way, except for playing the game of baseball,” he said.
At the end of the game, each player is presented a baseball and medal. The baseballs are special for the players – each is signed in by the Oilers and Joe Malatesta, a 71-year-old umpire that has called games from little league to “the big boys” for 50 years.
Umpiring at Saturday’s game, as he has the eight other games, he said the experience is rewarding.
One year he saw a child strike a pitch that screamed over the outfielders and bounce off the back fence. And it wasn’t on a tee.
The boy was so excited he ran past his three teammates stacked at the bases and was the first to home plate, he said.
“It feels good to watch people with disabilities have as much fun as kids playing tee ball,” Malatesta said.
About two hours later, Nickolai stepped out of the dugout holding a red bat. It was tiny in his hands.
The first two pitches were balls, and he placed the third on a tee.
He swung, hit the ball, and it snapped up and over the pitcher, over the second basemen and into the outfield.
And then he ran.
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.