Special-needs kids get a turn at bat

Sammy Sanchez participates in the baseball clinic for children with disabilities at Sluggersville, organized by the Blue Sox. Local high school volunteers also helped some kids swing baseball bats for the first time. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

Billy Killian lost his anonymity forever on April 20, 2004.

On that night, the off-duty Philadelphia police officer was shopping at his local convenience store when an armed robber burst into the place and held up the cashier. Killian was also packing heat that night. He charged to the front of the store, leapt over a counter and arrested the stunned bandit on the spot.

A video surveillance camera filmed the whole episode. Someone posted the 52-second clip on YouTube.com in October 2007. Since then, more than 161,000 people have watched it.

The film unveils a dominant element of Killian’s character, a trait that permeates every component of his daily life. The 7th district patrol cop is a baseball fanatic, as evidenced by the bright red Phillies cap he wore throughout that fateful 7-Eleven visit nine years ago.

About four years ago, Killian fulfilled a longtime dream by co-founding a baseball team of his police department colleagues. The Philadelphia Blue Sox now compete in the National Police and Fire Baseball Congress. On the side, they play exhibition games to raise money for charity.

Last month, Killian and his cohorts spent a Saturday sharing their passion with dozens of young people who might otherwise never have the chance to swing a bat, throw a pitch or field a grounder. They organized a baseball clinic for special-needs children at the Sluggersville indoor training facility.

“It feels good to help kids who can’t play in an organized setting and give them experiences that we all take for granted,” said Killian, whose Blue Sox will play the NY/NJ Port Authority Police this Saturday at Archbishop Ryan High School at 11 a.m.

About 50 young people ranging in age from 2 to 26 showed up for the April 13 clinic, which the team publicized through social media and word-of-mouth. Some have mental challenges like autism or Down syndrome, while others have physical challenges, such as spina bifida. Opportunities for kids and young adults like these are rare when it comes to America’s pastime.

“A lot of times, our kids don’t have something to do,” said Cyndi Hinchey, founder of the Holy Terrors Stars, a Northeast-based sports program for special-needs children. She is the mother of two autistic sons, Danny, 11, and Tommy, 13.

“This is a place where the kids can be comfortable, be safe and have fun,” Hinchey said.

The clinic was a far-reaching community effort. Sluggersville opened the doors to its 22,000-square-foot training center at 9490 Bluegrass Road. A group of Northeast natives, including Joe Brown, Jim Mort, Joe Doyle and Nick Capecci, opened the facility last September. Brown describes it as the only indoor baseball center of its kind in the city. The converted warehouse also features a concession stand, game room, party room and restrooms.

“We’ve been packed all winter. Baseball is booming, especially in Northeast Philly,” Brown said.

It’s also big in South Philly. That’s where most of the kids on the Ss. John Neumann and Maria Goretti High School baseball team live. They provided much of the hands-on instruction for the clinic under the direction of their head coach Mike Zolk. A Parkwood resident, Zolk also serves as the head trainer at Sluggersville and the manager of the Blue Sox.

“Billy approached us [about the clinic] and asked us if we were interested, and I thought it was a great idea,” Zolk said. “That’s part of the reason I came on board [as Blue Sox manager]. I love this stuff. I set up nine stations, and each is a specific drill. We’re showing them all the basics.”

State Rep. John Sabatina helped fund the program, which included lunch for the players, free T-shirts and a home run derby. It reminded him of his own brief baseball career.

“I was pretty good actually, but I hit a slump during [high school] try-outs,” Sabatina said. “I didn’t make varsity as a sophomore. But I was an all-star at Rhawnhurst for a couple of years.”

Business supporters included Faulkner Hyundai, Ace Public Adjusters and Philly Surround Sound. The kids and their families appreciated every bit of it, including Kira Liples of Doylestown and her son, Ciarlo, 2 1/2, who has spina bifida.

“He has a brace and a walker. He’s having a blast,” Liples said.

Neumann-Goretti junior Charlie Jerla of South Philly is a major college baseball prospect. He brought his 19-year-old cousin, Kevin Dalin, who has Down syndrome.

“[Charlie] was very interested when he heard about this program,” Jerla’s mom, Kate, said. “He wanted to bring Kevin because they are very close and connected through baseball. Kevin loves Ryan Howard and he knows everything about the Phillies.”

“[Kevin] says he’s the announcer for the Phillies,” Charlie Jerla said. “He thinks he’s the next Harry Kalas.” ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com