For five years, Ryan Huizdos played Little League baseball with the help of a bright yellow ball.
He’s legally blind because of albinism, so he used an easier-to-see, optic-yellow ball.
No one complained. Not the coaches. Not the players. Not the parents.
But then he made a Grosse Pointe/Harper Woods team that made it to a district tournament game in 2015. Ryan was lined up to pitch in the tournament when Little League found out about his yellow ball, and banned it from being used because it wasn’t approved and licensed by the league.
“I couldn’t understand. It confused me. I used it my whole life ” said Ryan, who recalled being frustrated, upset, dumbfounded. “It’s just baseball. It’s not professional baseball. It’s just teenagers playing.”
In a showdown that pits a suburban family against the world’s largest youth sports program with millions of players in 80 countries, Ryan’s family has leveled the playing field for visually impaired kids everywhere in the country. But they had to get the help of the U.S. Department of Justice to do it.
After a three-year legal scuffle, Ryan, who is in his final year of Little League, heads into the 2018 season with a special waiver allowing the optic-yellow ball to be used when he’s at bat, pitching or playing infield.
There was no lawsuit, just a letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit advising Little League that it was under investigation on accusations of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate a visually impaired boy from Michigan.
Little League cooperated, though the changes took time.
“All Little League Baseball had to do was make a reasonable accommodation,” said U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider in a recent interview, explaining why his office intervened. “We thought it was the appropriate thing for us to step up and take action. … We were fully prepared to file a lawsuit.”
Initially, the case was only about Ryan and his right to bat with the yellow ball, which he won. The next year, he was allowed to pitch with it, too: He had to seek a special waiver after an opposing coach put up a stink about him batting with a yellow ball, but pitching with a white one.
This year, the Department of Justice went a step further. It ordered Little League to allow visually impaired kids everywhere in the U.S. to apply for a yellow ball waiver, whether they’re at bat or in the field. Little League also agreed to put a new policy in place, allowing any player with a disability to request a waiver for an accommodation, and posted the new policy on its website.
For Schneider, the color of the ball should never have been an issue.
“This is about kids wanting to play baseball with their friends. That’s really what it’s about. It’s not like we’re asking for a different size ball or a bat — it’s not that at all,” said Schneider, noting the color of a ball doesn’t give anyone an unfair advantage.
“It’s only the color of the ball, that’s it,” Schneider said. “That shouldn’t be controversial.”
But it was.