USSSA won’t let Down Syndrome define Joshua Painter
By Tom Mulherin
A lot of kids share the same general interests when growing up.
They enjoy cartoons, with personalities dictating content. They like to play video games, build blocks, tell stories, or play outside. And, of course, kids all over the country love to play organized sports.
So, when it came to United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) baseball director Sonny Simpson’s attention that Joshua Painter – an 11-year-old with Down Syndrome – wanted to sign up this summer, Simpson and the other coaches didn’t hesitate to put him on the U12 Bananas.
“When we drafted the team, they said ‘we’ve got a Down Syndrome kid,’” said Simpson, who also co-coaches the Bananas. “(We) said, ‘we’ll take care of him, we want him.’ … Every kid should have an opportunity to play a sport they want to play.”
Why not, right?
Like other kids his age, Joshua enjoys telling stories. He plays Minecraft and Lego Star Wars on the XBox. He watches cartoons. He and his younger sister, Sadie Painter, get along well and like to do stuff outside together. And boy, do they love Legos.
The only thing separating Joshua from other kids is Down Syndrome. That just means communicating with him is a little harder, and he has a tough time learning things instinctively. But he has every ability to learn what other kids can, and he’s healthy.
“(Down Syndrome) doesn’t define him,” said Cheyrl Painter, Joshua’s mother. “Joshua is Joshua outside of any disability.”
Joshua played little league baseball for a year when he was five years old, before the family moved a few times. The Painters like the Boston Red Sox because the father, Jeffrey Painter, went to high school and college in Massachusetts. They even went to a Red Sox game in Detroit when they lived in Michigan for a couple of years. So, Joshua knew baseball enough to like it and wanted to play again this summer.
Initially, Cheryl and Jeffrey had some fears with signing him up. They wanted to give their son what he wanted, but they just weren’t sure how it would work out.
“We were concerned at first because we didn’t want him to be on a team and the kids be like, ‘aw, we don’t want him on the team,’” Cheryl said. “But you just have to let that go and go for it because he really wanted to (play). And he didn’t have any fears.”
Those concerns were quickly put to rest. After easily getting him on the Bananas, Joshua then met his teammates and coaches. They’ve accepted him with open arms.
“He got out there and the kids just treat him just like one of the other kids, and they joke around,” Cheryl said. “Everything’s just been great.”
“(The kids) love Joshua to death,” Simpson added. “They all help him out, play catch with him, let him do his work, do everything he needs to do. The kids are big fans of Joshua, 100 percent.”
Just by watching one Bananas game, the truth to that statement is easy to see.
When Joshua plays in the field, another teammate is there to help him out. Joshua, whom his mother calls “very social,” can be seen doing the “dab” dance move and laughing with his outfield partner. And when the team is batting, teammates surround Joshua on the bench while they all cheer, talk and laugh.
“I don’t even know what “dabbing” is, I’m just glad that he has friends,” Cheryl said. “Even out there (on the field), like I don’t have to be out there and say, ‘Joshua do this, Joshua do that.’ His teammates help him.”
To Simpson, that’s the point of the league; to learn, meet friends and have fun. That’s why the organization doesn’t restrict anyone from playing. The games can be competitive, but the kids’ enjoyment and development always comes first. And Simpson is happy to have given such joy to Joshua.
“Joshua has a blast,” he said. “He likes going out there and hanging out, talking to the players. … Just watching him out here, it puts a big smile on your face.”
Not only has Joshua been having fun, he’s also learning a little.
When the season first started, Simpson would pitch underhanded to him and Joshua would just run around the bases whether he hit it or not. On Thursday, a kid from the other team was pitching to him from a short distance. Joshua made contact for a grounder, and the opposing team committed several intentional errors to allow Joshua to, still, run around the bases. Teammates greeted him at home plate with high-fives, and Joshua had a smile on his face.
Cheryl Painter finds it “refreshing” that her son gets this chance. Not only because he gets to play baseball and socialize with other kids his age, but others get the chance to see Joshua how his family and friends see him.
“He centers me, he centers our family,” she said. “He seems to be the most logical one in the family. Because he has Down Syndrome, it doesn’t make any difference at all. … It’s just part of who he is. If people can get past the disability, or ability, and just see him for who he is – and I feel like the team has done that – he’s a blessing.”
After all, having fun and making friends is what the USSSA is all about.