Sports fans in Phoenix are well aware that the Sunnyslope Vikings and Apollo Hawks are rivals, especially when it comes to baseball.
“There’s a long history there,” Sunnyslope coach Jeff Shillington said. “Both teams have been lucky enough to have talent and look at each other as rivals with a little extra.”
With the season winding down, they were first and second in the standings, fighting for spots and seeding in the state playoffs. On top of that, they were opponents in the last home-and-home series of the regular season. So, a lot was on the line.
But the presence of Julian Erives-Beltran meant more. Julian, who has Down syndrome, is a student in the adaptive physical education class taught by Apollo coach Jerod Aker. Julian had become a friend to the Hawks’ baseball team, eating lunch and playing basketball with them through Unified Sports, a program of Special Olympics Arizona that joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team.
So, early in the season, Jerod called his counterpart at Sunnyslope to see if Julian could participate in Senior Day, part of the final series of the season. “He said yes right away, which didn’t surprise me,” Jerod said.
As the season progressed, though, it became apparent that Apollo and Sunnyslope were the cream of the crop in their section. So, unlike similar games in which players with special abilities take a bow, this wasn’t a case in which one team was overmatched or had been eliminated from contention. Jeff didn’t tell his players about Julian’s appearance until the day before the game. But because many of them also had worked with Unified Sports, the Vikings bought in without a second thought.
“Even though we knew the importance of the games, it was a no brainer,” he said. “The rivalry wasn’t nearly as important as something like this.” The coach’s advice to his players: Make him earn it.
Julian joined the team for infield and batting practice, then was the first man up. He hit to the left side of the infield and beat the ball to first. The throw “went into no-man’s land,” Jeff said. “It was organic. The only difference was I wasn’t blowing my lid.”
Julian scooted around the bases. As he passed second, his teammates emptied the dugout, then gathered at home plate, jumping and high-fiving.
“They all said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That made me feel great,” Julian said.
Those watching the video far removed from Phoenix had no clue that the game carried so much importance. They saw only the humanity and dignity in this act of class.
“I think that people from the outside looking in could see the love that our team has for Julian,” Jerod said. “Our guys didn’t see Julian as a young man with a disability; they saw him as their equal and a true friend.”
Both teams earned some good karma from their show of sportsmanship. Apollo beat Sunnyslope 7-2 that day. Sunnyslope won the next day 6-1, clinching the section title. Both qualified for the state playoffs, and both coaches will be honored with an award that has added meaning in the baseball world.
“I am very familiar with Stan’s baseball talents, but more so his humanitarian endeavors,” Jerod said. “He was an amazing baseball player, but a better human being. Words cannot explain how humbling it is to get an award named after Stan the Man.”