Little Leaguers get thrill of a lifetime
Local teams grace The House That Ruth Built on Thursday
NEW YORK -- As happy as 16-year-old Jose Garriga was to watch highlights of the Yankees' Bobby Abreu hit a walk-off double in New York's 10-inning win against Tampa Bay on Wednesday, he was looking forward more to the club's trip to Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Garriga and his teammates from the Little League Challenger division -- for special needs children -- in Astor, N.Y., were to play the New Jersey District 8 Challenger division team on Thursday.
At, of all places, Yankee Stadium.
"I'm going to be there tomorrow," Garriga told his father while watching the highlights.
He didn't want to go to sleep, said his mother, Janice Garriga, who, like the other parents, didn't get much rest either, up late on the phone talking about Thursday's game.
After they woke up, the Garrigas went to the team's usual practice field in the Bronx, ate breakfast -- "almost every pastry they got at Dunkin' Donuts," Janice said of the meal provided by Major League Baseball -- and boarded a chartered bus to the stadium.
At the stadium, family and friends sat in the field boxes in the corner of left field. The players warmed up, and soon it was game time.
And like any Yankees contest, the lineups were announced over the public address system -- "At second base, John Panza. At left field, Tiffany Ostella. At third base, Raymond Bernal" -- and during the national anthem, the players were shown on the DiamondVision screen.
"It feels good," Jose said before batting third in the lineup. "Incredible."
Most involved shared the sentiment. Some, like Michael Carfagno, who coaches the New Jersey team, have volunteered for about a decade.
"It gives you a new perspective on life," said Carfagno, whose son Frank plays on the club. "You don't know what you have until you see kids like this. To see these kids come out every Sunday and make them happy, it's really exhilarating."
It's like that for Linda Wilkins, who helped establish the Astor team when her son was diagnosed with autism about 10 years ago.
"Unless you have a child with special needs, a person might not understand what you go through," Wilkins said. "And here, you have a family."
These families were granted a unique privilege to play in The House That Ruth Built, and there were enough smiles and photographs and high fives to see that they appreciated it.
They will likely cherish the teams' group photos, taken in left-center field, on a sunny, special day.
As soon as the last group photo was taken, Janice Garriga stepped back to lift her sunglasses and wipe away tears.
She said, "For my son to tell me, 'Mommy, I will never forget this.' It's too much."
Willie Bans is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.