Brian Radle has seen the healing powers of baseball at work. No, the Kannapolis Intimidators president and general manager has not had a “Field of Dreams” out-of-body awakening, nor does he worship at Annie Savoy’s Church of Baseball. Rather, Radle points to his 3-year-old son Cam, who has non-verbal autism, and the very real impact coming to the ballpark has made on his life.
“At first it was pretty hard [bringing Cam to baseball games],” said Radle, who landed his first GM job with the Intimidators last fall after working for the Wilmington Blue Rocks and Lowell Spinners. “Things can get overwhelming for him with the crowd and the sounds, but we always had a certain place we could take him because I worked for the team, whether it was an office or one of the suites. That helped with things, with having him at the ballpark.
“Over time, we started seeing that he was getting more comfortable being at the ballpark, and he started enjoying being at the ballpark more each time. We noticed that started changing over to other public areas, whether in a mall or other public place. That started the conversation and the concept behind this.”
Radle’s concept became a reality on Opening Day earlier this month when the Intimidators unveiled Cam’s Clubhouse, a sensory-friendly space designed to be a safe area for special-needs children and their families during games. The converted office space overlooking the right-field line is the first of its kind in minor league baseball, a dedicated escape from the loud noises and crowded ballpark which, Radle said he knows from first-hand experience, can be overwhelming at times for children with autism. While challenging, it should not be an obstacle that prevents families in similar situations from attending ballgames, Radle insists.
“I hate to think some parents will think that [autism] is a deterrent to coming to the ballpark,” Radle said. “We welcome them with open arms. We want them to be able to enjoy baseball just like any other kid.”
The room was a hit during the Intimidators’ opening homestand, with various families visiting each day and children leaving their mark by signing their names on the wall. During an Education Day promotion, when the ballpark was filled with screaming and excited schoolchildren, a teacher swung by the room to tell Radle how excited she was about the new addition. She lamented the fact that special needs children are often left behind during field trips to the ballpark and believes that this room might now make it possible for them attend.
“Hearing her say that makes me so happy because that is exactly why we are doing this,” Radle said. “Hearing that special needs kids who weren’t able to come and were missing out on the fun that the other kids had would now be able to come . . . that’s why we are doing this.”
A Family Affair
Now in his 13th year working his way up the minor league ladder, Radle spends the bulk of his summers at the ballpark. As is typical for those who make a career in the minors, family time during the season often includes a trip to the ballpark. For Radle, that involves his wife Jeanine, 4-year-old son Kellan (who does not have special needs) and Cam.
“Being a baseball family, it’s good for me to have that balance and to have the boys and my wife around a lot so that I can see them in the summer months,” Radle said. “When he got diagnosed, it flipped a switch in my wife and me, and we started seeing certain things or certain characteristics for someone on the spectrum. It flipped our world upside down in terms of how we accepted the diagnosis and how we adapted to life with a child with autism. We asked ourselves how can we make the best life possible for him? How can we be the best possible support system and help him as he figures out how to maneuver through life with this.”
Part of that plan included continuing coming to the ballpark, which led to the idea of creating a safe place not just for Cam, but for other children with special needs. The idea veered toward reality when the team reorganized some office space during the offseason, freeing up a room on the club level with easy access to the concourse through a stairwell — a perfect spot for Cam’s Clubhouse. Radle said ushers and staff have been brief about the room and will guide any families in need to it during games.
“From my experience, knowing that [Cam] could have a meltdown at any moment, for us as parents, how can we easily get him into an area where he can set a reset button and be able to calm himself down,” Radle said. “That is important, to have easy access.”
Also important is having the right things on hand to create a calming environment. Radle and marketing director Blair Jewell consulted with the Autism Society of North Carolina about how to properly outfit the room, from the paint color to the mini-trampoline to the train table that is a favorite of Cam’s.
“Anytime you see him, he has either two trains in his hand or matchbox cars,” Radle said of Cam. “You always have something that makes you feel calm. Trains seem to be a hit with special needs children, just as they are with other kids.
“We put a lot of decor up on the walls about being kind, being brave, being you. We want to celebrate the abilities of these children and not focus on the disabilities.”