“Come on down.”
That was the text from Jason Teitler, SVP of Global Communications and Brand for Special Olympics, that unlocked the experience of a lifetime Friday night at Yankee Stadium and ushered me into an exclusive club. That should be no shock to anyone who knows Teitler or Special Olympics, though, a man and brand that have built skyscrapers on a foundation of inclusion.
Less than 24 hours prior, I’d been planning to attend the Yankees‘ Friday night battle with the Cubs as a fan, alongside my father, in an attempt to get my hands on an elusive Andy Pettitte bobblehead. I’d been scowling into my glove in preparation when I received word that there might be an opportunity for the both of us to spend an evening with Teitler and several Special Olympics athletes, honorees, and coaches in the Judge’s Chambers.
That opportunity materialized mere minutes after Teitler, along with athletes Rachel Soifer, Charles Tadare, and Charlotte Meier, had taken the field alongside Gleyber Torres, the Yankees’ star second baseman and a Special Olympics ambassador. Torres and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras are collaborators in launching Escuela de Fuerza, Special Olympics’ first-ever fitness campaign meant to foster a community of Hispanic athletes with intellectual disabilities.
Behind home plate, the contingent received a check for $10,000 towards Special Olympics New York, which came as a shock to Teitler, who had no idea a donation was coming until just prior to the on-field reveal.
For the lifelong Yankee fan who possesses a signed Derek Jeter/Joe Torre base and once ring shopped for his wife alongside Mariano Rivera (“I couldn’t pick. He closed.”), the moment certainly must’ve calcified something about what his organization means to so many people.
Yankees walk-off win Friday night spent in Judge’s Chambers with Special Olympics stars
Time spent with the athletes, parents, coaches and leaders in the box proved invaluable — enough to distract the most nerve-wracked of diehard fans (yours truly) from the fact that a tightly-contested game was even going on. Decked out in Special Olympics polos rather than robes and white wigs, each family’s story helped further exemplify what the organization means to so many kids who would otherwise not get the opportunity for expression.
“This is all seasons for us. We’ll do the track and field, then in the winter, we’ll do the skiing up in Vermont,” said Steve Meier, father of athlete Charlotte Meier, who confirmed she was “having fun” on the big screen pregame.
“When I was watching, I was really proud of you. Yankee Stadium, in front of a lot of people,” the elder Meier told his daughter, which immediately elicited a tender hug.
“The biggest thing is watching her grow. She’s in a safe environment, she’s out there competing, and she’s got people to support her,” Meier continued. “For a parent considering the experience, I wouldn’t think twice. Just jump in, don’t even think about it.”
Yuki Yamada, Director of School Wellness Programs in NYC’s District 75 and a leader with New York’s Special Olympics, has been hard at work selling the program for years, emphasizing the growth opportunity rather than the head-to-head competition.
“I truly believe in Special Olympics’ philosophy. I, personally, was a person with autism and sports changed my life,” Yamada shared well into our conversation. “Because of sports participation, I’m here right now.”
“This all started last year for us, with an event at the Javits Center,” said Scott Soifer, father of 13-year-old athlete Rachel Soifer. “They called us up and asked if she would participate, and we were delighted. She loved it. She won medals, she felt rewarded. We’ve got basketball practice tomorrow at the local high school, and it’s stuff like that that keeps her going.”
“She doesn’t really watch sports otherwise, but being here tonight, she’s really watching this game,” Soifer marveled. “Which … I’ve never seen her watch baseball before. Which is really nice. This is a very classy event … the Yankees donating $10,000, that’s a class organization.”
That engrossing game — as is so often the case with the Yankees — included a truly magical moment. Midway through the fourth inning, Torres strode to the plate and took Daniel Norris’ first pitch into the bullpen for a solo home run, delivering a special gift to the Chamber full of Olympians for the second time in as many hours. Predictably, it resulted in pandemonium.
Even for those who were not given the first-hand experience I was on Friday night, the camaraderie is evident in that short clip.
When asked what stood out most about his experience with the organization, Coach Frank Coyle was emphatic. “The growth. The growth. All of them, they’re so shy, and then now they’re expressing themselves.”
“I coach other athletes outside this community. These folks are easier to work with because of the purity they bring to the competition, to the practice sessions. The respect that they have. It’s all natural. There’s no façade involved. No peer pressure,” Coyle continued, proudly gesturing at a row of athletes he’d brought to the game. “And the level of fairness within the competition … in a basketball game, if they’re knocking each other down, they’re picking their competitor up. And it’s genuine. That’s such a beautiful thing to watch.”
“Me, personally, that’s something that fills my heart and brings me back.”
“Try. I get a lot of calls like, ‘Oh, my son can’t dribble a basketball’. Well, that’s OK. Just give it a try,” Coach Joe Amadeo shared. “They do it, and they get better.”
“And the support they’re gonna get internally within this community is unlike any other,” Coyle added. “These guys are gonna pick one another up, pat each other on the back and say it’s OK, keep on trying.”
Next up for Teitler and Co. is the Unified Cup, an inclusive soccer event taking place in July in Detroit, featuring players with and without intellectual disabilities competing together harmoniously.
For one night in the Bronx, though, preparations were on pause. More than four hours after they’d delivered a win for Special Olympics, the Yankees sent catcher Jose Trevino up with two on and two out in the bottom of the 13th. As he’s wont to do, the fan favorite smashed a single, sent the gathered crowd home happy, and took Teitler off the tenterhooks he’d been perched upon with great intensity since sometime around the seventh or eighth.
“I brought my Mariano Rivera jersey today. You know why? Because that’s Win No. 42,” Teitler enthusiastically exclaimed. Like his compatriots in the Chambers, he sure knows how to make a fella feel included.