New baseball fields will include diamond for players with disabilities

Abbotsford to build three diamonds at Grant Park, including one for Challenger Baseball program

A rapidly growing program for ballplayers with disabilities will soon have its own purpose-built home base.

A new baseball facility at Grant Park will include a diamond with synthetic turf and be specifically designed for the increasing number of local ballplayers with disabilities.

Council gave the go-ahead Monday for the improvements, which will see the park’s single current field replaced by three new diamonds, including one designed for the Abbotsford Angels’ Challenger division, which gives players with disabilities the opportunity to play the sport. The other two fields will be grass and sized for players nine and under.

In addition to the fields, the park – which is located just north of Highway 1 and west of Clearbrook Road – will also get more parking, better dugout and washroom facilities, and an inclusive, wheelchair-friendly playground.

The number of people playing Challenger Baseball has nearly quadrupled since the program was launched just a few years ago, and organizer Tim Hall said the diamonds and other facilities will go a long way to meeting the increased demand, as well as the players’ unique needs.

Challenger Baseball is played by those with cognitive or physical disabilities from age four to adult. No score is kept, and the goal is to create a full and fun baseball experience. Each player is teamed up with a “buddy” to help play the game. The buddy can help the player swing the bat, field the ball or move a wheelchair around the bases.

From around a dozen participants at the program’s inception a couple years ago, Challenger Baseball now boasts 45 players on four separate teams.

“We are super excited,” organizer Tim Hall said. “Having a dedicated space … is going to be massive.”

Most – but not all – of the division’s games have been played at Elwood Park, near Fishtrap Creek Park. The park’s fields have sufficed thus far, but Elwood’s dugouts couldn’t accommodate wheelchairs. When games have to be moved elsewhere, they sometimes don’t get played because of accessibility worries and other challenges.

The synthetic field will make it easier to push wheelchairs around the base paths and allow players to get ready in a legitimate baseball dugout.

“We want it to be a baseball experience, and the field is going to allow us to create that,” Hall said.

He said city staff were also receptive to the insistence that any field would need a wheelchair-friendly parking lot and washrooms.

The non-synthetic fields can also be used to host other Challenger teams, and an inclusive playground – with a wheelchair-friendly surface and play elements that can be used by those with disabilities – will be a further asset.

Hall said his program also hopes to have a positive effect that can be felt beyond the diamond.

The program is a part of the Abbotsford Angels’ organization, and this year Hall said the organization is intent on having each team spend a day being buddies for Challenger players. Other groups have also joined in.

“It’s just neat to have people interact with each other and get to know kids with disabilities,” Hall said.

He hopes that partnership extends to schools and can create friendships between Challenger players and able-bodied buddies.

The Abbotsford Angels have long called for more ball fields, with president Steve Coleman pushing for a full-scale tournament complex.

The Grant fields are not that, but Mayor Henry Braun said he hopes they show that the city is intent on providing more ball diamonds. Coleman has expressed enthusiasm for the project and the future.

Coun. Bruce Banman hailed the Angels’ persistence and “tenacity” in making their case for more diamonds, while Coun. Dave Loewen said the Grant diamonds are a move towards clustering the city’s sportsfields and implementing the city’s recently completed parks, recreation and culture master plan.

In addition to the benefits of simply having more ball fields, Coleman said in an email that the project upgrades worn-out infrastructure and cleans up an underutilized park.

The project will cost $2.2 million, almost all of which will come from development cost charges paid to the city and reserved for the building of new amenities like parks. About $100,000 will come from the city’s reserves, and another $37,000 comes from a grant from the BC Summer Games Legacy Fund.

Construction will begin soon, with completion anticipated before the 2020 baseball season begins.

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tolsen@abbynews.com

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