The most important person on a youth baseball team isn’t always the coach, the star pitcher or the power hitter in a team’s batting order —sometimes the most important person on the team is the one who never actually plays but always contributes.
D.J. Teeter, sporting a batting helmet and jersey, watched intently from the end of the fence of the third-base dugout at Bachman Field this week as the Penfield (N.Y.) Little League Junior Division team conducted batting practice in preparation for the state tournament.
D.J. watched the ball sail off the bat of 14-year-old Zachary Tilkins.
Everyone on and around the team says D.J.’s swing resembles that of Tilkins.
“Live!” Shouted coach Steve Pace.
It’s an ordinary thing for the 10-year-old D.J., whose story is anything but.
D.J. suffered two strokes in utero, had seizures and periodically stopped breathing. Doctors rushed his mom, Kaila, to surgery for an emergency Caesarean section. Following that he spent 10 days under observation in the neonatal intensive care unit.
But his struggles had just begun.
“We figured out (he would have developmental issues) when he was a little baby,” Kaila said. “He crawled, but he crawled backwards … we knew he would be delayed in certain areas. He wouldn’t speak, so we taught him sign language, and he had a (Dyno-box) that talked for him.”
A combination of ADHD and autism delayed his speech and D.J. didn’t talk until the second or third grade, Kaila recalls. Although he was speaking, he was still extremely shy.
“After I sent out my (welcome) email I got contacted by D.J.’s mom saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring some stuff in for the classroom,’ ” said Pace, a special education teacher. “So I was there one day and in walked this little, shy, timid boy with a smile ear-to-ear but he didn’t know what to say.”
D.J. was the first student Pace met at Cobbles and since then the two have been attached at the hip.
Kaila and her husband, Daniel, as most parents do with their children, tried to get D.J. into different activities. They took him to soccer once and he didn’t quite take to it.
A neighbor of the family had a daughter who participated in the Penfield Challenger League, a group that enabled boys and girls with physical and mental challenges to play baseball, and Kaila and Daniel thought it may be a good opportunity.
Once Pace, a former baseball player at St. John Fisher and former high school coach, learned his student was going to start playing baseball, he suggested to Kaila and Daniel that D.J. bring a glove to school.
“He would take his glove and ball to school and during recess time (Pace would) throw catch and teach him how to slide and dive and stuff and he’d come home and show me all excited,” Kaila said.
D.J. and his family found themselves at one of the Penfield Juniors’ games and Pace noticed the look on his student’s face watching the older kids play the game he was just starting to learn.
“I asked him if he wanted to be bat boy,” Pace said. “He didn’t know what that meant, but he saw 12 or 13 other kids (on the field) and wanted to be a part of that.”
Pace gave Kaila the team’s schedule, and D.J. hasn’t missed a game.
“It’s been a godsend,” Daniel said of his son being a part of the team. “I think the biggest thing it did for him other than bring him out of his shell is that it gave him something he never had, and that was a sense of belonging.”