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Reprinted from SNS January 2019

Wheelchair softball fields are popping up throughout the country, but find out what makes them different from a regular field

When Larry Labiak tells people he plays on a wheelchair softball team, he knows the reaction he’s going to get — he gets it all the time. 

“How the heck do you maneuver a wheelchair in dirt and grass?” people invariably ask him. 

The answer: “We don’t,” says Labiak, who plays catcher for the Chicago Cubs wheelchair softball team. “It’s basically a hard tennis court surface.” 

Labiak and his teammates have played for about 15 years at the specially built adaptive softball field at California Park, on Chicago’s north side, just a few miles northwest of Wrigley Field, home of Major League Baseball’s Cubs, who helped pay for the wheelchair field.


California Park is one of dozens of fields that have been built over the last couple decades aimed at enhancing the game for wheelchair softball players. 

It’s not that wheelchair softball wasn’t played before — teams have been playing since the 1970s. But the game tended to be played on concrete parking lots. For many years, Labiak was on a team called the Chicago Pacemakers that played in back of a Catholic church — when there weren’t cars parked there.

Parking lots worked, but there were always irregularities. A slope here, a dangerous raised drain there, a crack in the concrete that could be a nightmare. And, of course, cars.

But mostly, it just didn’t look like a softball field. 

“Back then, the setup looked more like a construction site rather than a place to play,” notes the National Wheelchair Softball Association’s website.

Changing Landscapes

But that is changing. Increasingly, teams are playing on permanently marked fields designed just for them that have the look and feel of a ballpark, and flat, hard surfaces conducive to sports wheelchairs.

The growing number of specially designed wheelchair fields often have the colors of a ball diamond, like the sand or dirt-colored warning track and infield. They have basepaths and colored bases that are flush with the ground so chairs can roll onto, or over, them. All on hard, tennis-court-like surfaces that make it easy to roll.

Many of the fields have extra-large dugouts, so a player can roll around another player’s wheelchair, and wider entrance gates that are easier to navigate in wheelchairs.

In a 2009 YouTube video about the Bulova Park softball field in New York City, Victor Calise, then with the United Spinal Association and now with the New York mayor’s office, noted what may seem obvious when thinking about softball field design but often isn’t for non-disabled people: Players have to be able to easily get on and off the field. 

“Some of the problems disabled athletes find is getting into the venue,” Calise says. “Once you get to that place, you need an opening wide enough to fit your … chair.” 

In addition to accessibility improvements, the new fields’ regular ballpark “look” just gives the game a better feel, Labiak says.

The Cubs’ field, for example, was designed to have a little bit of the “friendly confines” feel of Wrigley — it has a 4-foot wall instead of the standard 8-foot wall. 

“It was designed with the idea of being kind of cozy,” Labiak says.

It has low fences around the sides and a low backstop as well.

“We wanted it to feel close,” Labiak says. “We wanted fans to be able to lean over the fence and talk to players. And we have that.”

Originally, Chicago’s California Park even had a scoreboard designed to look like the old manual one at Wrigley. 

“Unfortunately, we ended up replacing that with a more standard electronic scoreboard,” Labiak says.

 

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